January views at The Quarry Gardens are open, revealing much that cannot be seen in the verdant months. In the gray-brown landscape, green is now an accent color contributed by pines and junipers, hollies, the unwelcome Japanese honeysuckle, some evergreen ferns, and emerging points of skunk cabbages in the wetlands—and some orchids.
One green presence is the Cranefly orchid, Tipularia unifolia. Cranefly orchids are easily recognized in winter, as their single 2-4″ leaves are deep green on the front and brilliant purple on the back.
Now, they may be seen all along—even within—the trails, where they are subject to being trod upon. Why there? Cranefly orchids depend on mycorrhizae generated by decaying wood—and what decays better or faster than wood chip trails?
The leaves persist into spring before senescing. Then, sometime in late July, after we’ve forgotten about them, the orchids will bloom. On spikes 8-12″ tall, they will produce small, pale beigey-green flowers that appear to swarm around the stems—hence the name “cranefly.”
Common in forests throughout the southeastern U.S., Cranefly orchids are pollinated by night-flying owlet moths, which transfer pollen on their eyes. The roots are a connected series of edible corms. Armand and I tried the tiny corms: They’re crunchy like potatoes but taste a little sweeter, and leave a persistent, slightly astringent, unpleasant mucilage in the mouth. (Once will be enough.)
Deer commonly eat the entire leaf, leaving the plant without a means of accumulating enough carbohydrates to bloom and make seed the following summer. Fortunately, Cranefly orchids are perennial, so they persist—and, so far, our deer have mostly found other plants of interest.
Other orchid species found at The Quarry Gardens include Puttyroot, Aplectrum hyemale; Downy rattlesnake plantain, Goodyera pubescens; Lily-leaved twayblade, Liparis lilifolia; Nodding ladies’ tresses, Spiranthes cereus; and Southern slender ladies’ tresses, Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis.