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Cranefly orchid, Tipularia discolor
Photo by Jim Jung. All rights reserved.

Cranefly Orchids

Tipularia discolor

Cranefly Orchids are one of three orchid species in our area that are most easily found in the winter. Like their cousins the Puttyroot Orchid these two species send up their new leaves in the fall to take advantage of the sunlight filtering through the leafless forest canopy and soaking up sunlight through the winter. As the canopy closes over again in the spring and cuts off life-giving sunlight the leaves die back and the plant sleeps the summer away awakening only to flower in August.

Cranefly Orchids have rich, deep green upper surfaces - often with "warts" - while the undersurface of the leaves are a deep purple color. This is a typical leaf coloration strategy of plants that exist in low light situations. The red undersurface reflects light back into the leaf tissue allowing the chloroplasts (the food producing cells of the plant) a second chance at capturing light it missed the first time through. It probably also warms the leaf somewhat by trapping light and converting it to heat.

Thanks to the numerous pine plantings done for erosion control and reforestation with their resulting high acid needle litter this species appears to be expanding its range northward (with our help) since they were unknown in Illinois just a half century ago. Look for them anytime during the winter months in pine plantations on well-watered north or east facing slopes. While not common they're abundant when found.

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