A Real Hidden Gem: Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor)

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

Perhaps of all the North Carolina wildflowers I have tried to photograph, the hardest by far is the diminutive and well-camouflaged Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), which appears each August under my Beech (Fagus sylvatica) tree. I first became aware of its existence, only after representatives of the New Hope Audubon Society pointed to it as we toured my backyard during a Bird-Friendly Wildlife Habitat inspection. I wrote about this very educational visit previously for the Durham Master Gardener Blog in November, 2018[1].

The orchid flowers are tiny and delicate and blend in with the color of the leaf litter. The orchid plant is most easily identified in winter when its one leaf is present. In 2018, we only observed one orchid flower stem (inflorescence) but this winter several distinctive leaves appeared beneath the beech tree in four areas around the drip line of the beech tree. I marked these spots because the leaves disappear in early spring and for more than 2 months there is no visible evidence of the orchid’s existence until the flower stem pokes through the leaf cover in July.  This year, the four areas have between 2 to 7 stems per colony for a total of 15 flower stems. 

Cranefly orchid flower stems with buds (encircled) almost invisible under the beech tree. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on July 29, 2020

The Cranefly (crane-fly) or Crippled Cranefly Orchid is a member of the family Orchidaceae and the only species of the genus Tipularia (temperate terrestrial orchids) found in North America[2]. Its common name refers to its flower features, which look like the stilt-like legs, slender body and wings of a Crane Fly and the asymmetrical, or twisted arrangement of these flowers resembles the splayed legs of a crippled Crane Fly perhaps.[3]

Asymmetrical flower features of Cranefly Orchid resembling a crane fly. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on August 9, 2018


The Cranefly Orchid is native to the southeastern United States and occurs as far north as Michigan, as far south as Florida and west to Texas[4]. It can be found from the mountains to the coast in North Carolina and we are lucky to have secure[5] populations of this orchid because it is threatened in Florida and Michigan, listed as endangered in Massachusetts and New York, and rare in Pennsylvania[6].

Growing Conditions

Cranefly Orchids grow in woodlands with decaying wood and moist soils with high organic matter and good drainage. They need partial shade and some sun in the winter[7]. The large beech tree in my natural area is ideal as it is deciduous and looses its leaf cover in December. The orchid is also found in moist humus-rich soils of deciduous forests along slopes and stream terraces, in sandy acidic soils of oak-pine forests, and often in depressions under sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) trees[8].


Each orchid produces one oval-shaped basal leaf close, which only appears in the winter. The leaf emerges in November and is green with spots above and the leaf is a distinctive purple color below.

Green leaf with purple spots in winter. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on November 3, 2018
Underside of the Cranefly Orchid leaf is purple in color. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on November 3, 2018

The leaf originates from one small corm 0.7 to 3 cm (1/4 to about 1 inch) in diameter8

Features of the Cranefly Orchid: flowers, corm and leaf, bud and fruit[9]


In early July, this very discrete native wildflower first emerges in the Piedmont as a small 7 cm (3 inch) tall spike and as it grows taller, a tight cluster of buds can be observed at the tip.

Flower stem emerging from leaf litter. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on July 22, 2020
Cluster of flower buds on tip of flower stem. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on July 22, 2020

The orchid flowers eventually unfurl in August. The cluster of flowers (about 20) on each purple (more like burgundy to me) stem or inflorescence is about 8 to 28 cm long (about 4 inches to 1 foot).

Flower stem grown in height and individual flower buds can be distinguished. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on July 29, 2020

Each irregular or asymmetrical flower is less than 1 cm in diameter with varying bloom color of yellow to greenish yellow or with a purplish[10] or copper-like color. There is a nectar spur on each flower that can be 1 to 2 cm long8.

Cranefly Orchid in full bloom. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on August 7, 2019

The flower is pollinated by noctuid moths4, which are usually nocturnal and camouflaged to resemble tree bark. As the moth inserts its proboscis into the nectar tube pollinaria (specialized structures containing pollen) attach to the moth’s compound eyes and when the moth travels to the next flower it transfers the pollinaria to complete pollination. The flowers turn to oval-shaped fruits in the fall.

Close up of individual Cranefly Orchid flowers (less than 1 cm). Note long nectar spur on each flower. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on August 7, 2019

I can’t wait to see all the tiny orchid flowers bloom beneath my beech tree in the coming weeks this summer. Some things are best experienced in person because a camera cannot always capture the sparkle of this tiny gem of a wildflower.



[2] Classification page: https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TIDI

[3] https://virginiawildflowers.org/2015/08/27/cranefly-orchid-or-crippled-cranefly/

[4] https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/tipularia_discolor.shtml

[5] https://goorchids.northamericanorchidcenter.org/species/tipularia/discolor/

[6]Legal status page- https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=TIDI

[7] https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/tipularia-discolor/

[8] http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=220013573

[9] Drawing   Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 573.

[10] https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=TIDI

An Introduction to the Durham Garden Forum

by Karen Lauterbach EMGV

Does the pandemic have you thinking about gardening?  Are you considering growing your own food, looking for a way to spend time outside in a rewarding hobby, or working to improve your home landscape? If so, you should know about the Durham Garden Forum (DGF), a valuable resource for Durham residents and others in the Triangle area.

Now entering its 11th year, the DGF holds lectures once a month on a variety of gardening subjects, including growing vegetables, garden design, composting, tree care, controlling invasive plants, and gardening with native plants.

Since its inception in 2009, DGF meetings have been held at Sarah P. Duke Gardens from 7 to 8:30 pm on the third Tuesday of each month.  In March 2020, DGF moved online via Zoom. Since then, meeting invitations have been sent each month to all DGF members and Durham County Extension Master Gardeners. 

“We created Durham Garden Forum to provide members of our gardening community with research-based learning on a monthly basis at low cost,” explains Gene Carlone, one of the DGF founding members along with Rick Fisher, who was also an extension master gardener volunteer.  “We recruit qualified and effective speakers to present research-based information on a variety of gardening topics. Through our lectures, we inform the gardening community of resources available to improve gardening techniques and practices.”

And for the past two years, DGF has also provided a venue for plant sharing, with members bringing excess plants and leaving them on the plant-giveaway table.

“This service has been temporarily suspended while we meet via Zoom, but will be up and running again when we next meet in person, probably with a lot of pent-up supply and demand,” Carlone added.

DGF will be an online lecture series for the coming year. If you have not been receiving invitations to DGF online programs and would like to receive a meeting invitation, send your request to durhamgardenforum@gmail.com.  You will be added to the email distribution list.

Here are the dates, times and topics for upcoming lectures:

  • August 25, 2020; 7:00 – 8:30 pm – Beyond Daffodils and Tulips (a review of all geophytes, including bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes, and tuberous roots)
  • September 15, 2020; 7:00 – 8:30 pm – TreesDurham (A review of historical policies that have created today’s inequitable tree distribution in Durham)
  • October 20, 2020; 7:00 – 8:30 pm- Hosta! (gardening with hosta, with a look at some of the newest varieties)
  • November 17, 2020; 7:00 – 8:30 pm – Houseplants 101 (how to bring the garden indoors)
  • December 15, 2020; 7:00 – 8:30 pm – Ten Mothers Farm (learn more about growing organic, nutrient-rich vegetables)
  • January 19, 2021; 7:00 – 8:30 pm – Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Tomato Grafting Project
  • February 16, 2021; 7:00 – 8:30 pm – Reptiles and Amphibians In Your Garden (learn about the variety of reptiles and amphibians in our area, separating truth from myth)

Topics for the remainder of 2021 will be announced as the program schedule is finalized. 

Questions?  Contact durhamgardenforum@gmail.com.

July: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell

2020, the year of COVID-19, quarantine, ubiquitous face masks and toppling Civil War monuments. “The times they are a changin’.”  (Thank you, Bob.)

Speaking of changing; Wasn’t June fun in the garden? There was weather to suit almost everybody. (All you snow lovers ain’t ever going to be happy here, so get over it.) We had dry & cool, and dry & hot, and wet & hot, and wet & cool, and wet & wet (though never wet & dry). In between all of those were some really nice days which if you didn’t blink you could have enjoyed.

My “Accidental Cottage Garden” is looking like … well, an accidental cottage garden. The many-hued season has given way to the yellow and violet season. There are coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata & C. verticilata), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida), prairie cornflower (R. hirta) and a spreading chrysanthemum that blooms nearly all summer (and is yet to be identified by me) all screaming yellow.  The violet is provided by liatris (Liatris spicata), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Stoke’s aster (Stoksia leavis), balloon flower (Platycodon grandifloris) and some lingering cornflowers (Centaurea montana). A couple of counterpoints have just bloomed, butterfly weed (Asclepeis tuberosa) and a variety of Asiatic lily (Lilium x ‘Corsica’). The Limelight hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’)  is fixin’ to bust out, but the Knockout rose has succumbed to the ravages of voles. There appears to be something new every day.

Oh! I almost forgot. Y’all came here looking for a calendar of stuff to do in July in the garden. Just for you, here ‘tis.

Lawn Care
Fertilize warm season grasses (Bermuda, Zoysia and St. Augustine) if you haven’t already.

When mowing these lawns remove one-third of the growth.

Change directions with each mowing to strengthen root systems and expose different side of the blades of grass to sunlight.

Continue side-dressing your vegetable garden plants.

July is the last time to fertilize landscape plants until next year.

This is an excellent time to take soil samples especially from your lawn. Sample boxes and instructions can be obtained from the extension office. It is a FREE service until mid-November.

Veggies that can still be planted include Brussels sprouts, collards, beans, carrots, tomatoes* and pumpkins.

Get ready for the fall garden by starting broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower plants to be transplanted in mid-August.

This is also a good time to transplant overgrown houseplants.

“Bleeder” trees like maple, dogwood, birch and elm can be pruned this month.

Overgrown hedges can be pruned.

Keep garden mums pinched until mid-month.

Coniferous evergreens (they make cones with seeds in them) can be pruned.

Raspberry and blackberry fruiting canes can be cut to the ground following harvest.

Remove faded blooms on perennials to encourage a second blooming. (Or let them go to seed and feed the birds.)

Rhododendrons, azaleas – I know that’s redundant – and blueberries can have the dieback removed.

Insects to be watchful for include bag worms, leaf miners, aphids, spider mites and lace bugs. Oh, yeah.  Japanese beetles, duh.

Watch tomatoes* for signs of blight and spray as necessary.

Continue with rose program.

Also continue fungicide program for bunch grapes and fruit trees.

Vegetable pests to be on the lookout for:  cucumber beetle (cucumber, ironically enough), flea beetle (tomato, eggplant and beans) and aphids (everything).

Only use pesticides when necessary and ALWAYS follow the label instructions.

Not too many extra things to do this month unless you want to build cold frames and greenhouses to be ready for next winter. I recommend you kick back on the deck in the evening with a cool beverage and enjoy summer in this the “goodliest state.” 

*Speaking of tomatoes, visit our Tomato Grafting Project page for an update about this special project! Learn more