Nancy’s Nature Notes: Winter Orchids

My creative process right now involves gathering some unusual materials. Today it was the stems of the fruiting bodies of mosses, an activity that reminded me somewhat of harvesting saffron. I spent hours up on the trail, not just doing the work, but really just because I wanted to be out in the woods. The trail was icy. In parts, the ice under the leaves released trapped air and let out a slow sigh when I stepped on it. Other parts were squeaky, and others were crunchy.

In a few spots, I found frost heave. This is caused by a “lens” of water in the ground — an underground puddle from previous rains, or from a spring. When water freezes and expands, it pushes up through small gaps between rocks, roots, and soil to make fingerlike projections. Frost heave loosens the soil and provides gaps for the tender roots that will sprout in the coming spring.

Frost heave on the trail

Winter is a great time to be in the woods. Far from being dead, the forest is alive and interesting, and it’s a good time for naturalists to focus on phenomena we might otherwise miss in the greener parts of the year. This is the first of several posts I’ll do on the joys of winter in the Southern Apps.

One of the great things about the chilly season is finding winter leaves. Forest wildflowers that produce leaves in winter make a trade-off — they expose themselves to cold temperatures, but they can make use of abundant light that reaches the forest floor while the tree canopy is bare. Three of our common orchids have winter leaves — two of which die back in summer.

The first of these, Crane Fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), has a purple surface on the underside of the leaf. It’s thought that the purple pigment may help reflect the light back up into the leaf, making the most of the winter’s light… but there is also a hypothesis that instead, it acts as a sunscreen to protect the leaf from too much sun. The orchid’s single leaf appears in fall and remains through the spring. The flowers that bloom in summer are delicate and spindly, somewhat like a crane fly.

The leaves of Crane-fly Orchid have a purple underside.

Puttyroot, also called Adam and Eve (Aplectrum hyemale), has a large leaf with distinctive pin stripes. Like that of the Crane-fly orchid, this orchid’s single leaf is only found from autumn through spring, dying back in summer. The underground corms produce a sticky putty-like substance, giving the plant one of its common names. The flowers that emerge on a spike in late spring/ early summer are yellowish-green with dark red tips on the petals. This coloration makes it difficult to see against a backdrop of green, and leads some to describe it as “ghostly.”

Puttyroot leaves appear to be pin-striped.

Unlike the other two orchids, the leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) are present all year round. Networked with a light colored pattern, these charming rosettes of leaves can be encountered in forests throughout most of eastern North America. They send up a spike of small white flowers in summer. The dried pods which follow are tightly clustered toward the tip, somewhat reminiscent of a rattlesnake rattle.

Rosettes of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain are present throughout the year.