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Tipularia_discolor_2004-01-04
Tipularia discolor
    ( Tipularia        discolor )
Cranefly Orchid, taken on January 4, 2004.
Photo Credit: Mike Strickland

What about a woodland orchid to delight you? Tipularia discolor is a perennial that will appear in autumn as a single green leaf with a purple back. This leaf will persist through the winter and then begin to disappear as the flower stalk (the scape) of the orchid makes its entrance as early as July. The 15-20" flowering stem opens in August and September bearing as many as 40 small, greenish-purple (or greenish-yellow) flowers with a spindly, fly-like appearance as if numerous crane flies are hovering around the stem, hence the common name Crane Fly Orchid. The Latin name for crane fly is Tipula.

You will enjoy seeing the single, oval-shaped green leaf suddenly poking out of the leaf litter as the weather becomes cooler; you may not even notice it unless a green leaf flips over to show its purple back. Some have a leaf that is purple both top and bottom but always the leaf is purple on the back. Often there is more than one plant in close proximity and a nice grouping is formed. The leaf can be dull to shiny green on top and sometimes have raised purple spots. Remaining visible through winter, the leaf begins to disappear in late spring to early summer and by the time this perennial actually blooms, there are no leaves.

Crane-fly orchid is natively found in moist humus-rich soils and along slopes of deciduous forests. The single leaf grows from a corm. If you transplant one from the woods to your woodland area, be sure to take lots of the surrounding leaf mold in order to create a similar environment in its new home. They grow best in dappled shade. You may want to mark the spot with a rock or evergreen plant because without the leaf it is very easy to step on the developing scape which will bear the distinctive flower stalk. Plant the corm shallowly, one-half to three-quarters inch and with a damp layer of humus that you took from the native site.

Each leaf can produce a single erect flower stalk from July to September. The blossoms are so small and airy that the flower stalk is easy to miss noticing up close and then, in the distance you begin to see the airy flower stalk here, a flower stalk there, and all of a sudden you see them everywhere. Tipularia discolor is one of the few orchids with distinctly asymmetrical flowers.

Moths are the pollinator for this plant. The flowers have pollinaria (specialized structures containing pollen). As the moth visits the flower, the pollinaria attaches to the moth's eyes, and then the moth transfers the pollinaria to another flower for pollination.

Tipularia discolor is fairly common in our NW Georgia hardwood forests but loss of hardwood habitat in other areas of the eastern US has earned this lovely plant a place on the Threatened, Endangered List in those states. Presence of the plant is considered an indication of a quality habitat so if you have it natively on your property, you can be quite proud.

Although the leaf is more noticeable than the blossom, this native orchid certainly deserves a spot in the woodland garden.

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