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ID Lab #3: A Quick Look at a Native Orchid

After digging out from Snowzilla, I figured everyone could do with a quick ID Lab post with a bit of color. I didn’t want to get too far afield from my goal of seasonally appropriate photos, so these are from early December. I’m trying out a shorter format for some of my ID Lab posts, so hopefully I can create more content. I’ll still be doing more in-depth comparative posts. Feel free to leave your feedback in the comments below or on the Sangha’s Facebook.

Photo: Frequently, but not always, the top surface of the leaf will be speckled with dark dots.

This is Tipularia discolor, Crane Fly Orchid, our most common orchid. I took this photo at Accotink Creek while on a walk with Kris Unger from Friends of Accotink Creek. From the top, there’s not too much to see. The leaves are dark green, elliptic, and with a slightly cordate base. If you weren’t paying very close attention, you could easily mistake it, at first glance, for common plantain (Plantago major).

Obviously readers of this blog aren’t so easily fooled! For starters, even though Common Plantain has parallel major veins, in between it has smaller reticulate (branching) veins. Each T. discolor only forms a single leaf, not a basal rosette. If you see multiple leaves clustered together, look carefully, as these are generally a small colony created by vegetative, rather than sexual, reproduction. The leaves, like the leaves of other monocots, have parallel veins and emerge in the fall and die back in the spring.

Photo: The underside of the solitary leaf of Tipularia discolor. Some are an even brighter purple than this example.

The specific epithet (Discolor meaning two-colored) for this plant comes into play once you flip the leaf over and expose its bright purple underside. This is as much of the plant as most of us ever get to appreciate. In the spring, Tipularia discolor blooms without any leaves present and the small raceme of pale flowers can be easy to miss amongst the leaf litter. Hopefully this spring I can return to this patch and get a shot of them in bloom.

I was, however, lucky enough to find the remains of the seed capsules still intact. I didn’t bother to break these open or collect any seed. This species isn’t one we propagate, because our focus is on, primarily, common native species that can be used to restore degraded areas. Nor could we have easily grown them, even if we tried. Tipularia, like many orchids, are difficult to germinate and need very specific conditions, in this case the presence of rotting wood (1). This species does have a specific relationship with a pollinator, the white-speck or armyworm moth (Pseudaletia unipuncta).

Photo: These seed pods are the remnants from the spring flowers that are pollinated by white-speck moths.

So there you have it! A quick look at one of our native orchids. Now that the snow is melting, I’ll be back outside getting some fresh photos for an upcoming post on winter tree ID.

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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