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

Distribution

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].

Leaf

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]

Flower

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.

References:

[1]https://durhammastergardeners.com/2018/11/07/create-a-bird-friendly-habitat-and-receive-recognition/

[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

May: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Rhododendron in bloom. Photo by A. Laine.

Ahh, May. The lovely month. The month for mothers, proms, college graduations and the first great beach weekend—Memorial Day. It is generally not too hot and rarely too cool. The month of balmy days that lead to enchanting evenings on the veranda (deck, patio, veranda—whatever). Enjoy the evening.  There’s gardening to be done on the morrow.

Lawn Care
Warm season grass people: It is your turn. If you didn’t fertilize the lawn in April, get to it. A good slow release fertilizer that meets the requirements notated in your SOIL TEST results is in order. Also, sharpen those mower blades.

Cool season grass folks: Just mow it, but not less than 3 inches high. “Do not,” he repeated, “fertilize cool season grasses until Fall.”

Fertilizing
Speaking of fertilizing; long season vegetable crops like tomatoes, beans and squash (among others) will benefit from a side dressing six to eight weeks after germination. (What?! You didn’t start your own from seed? You bought plants at a Big Box? Give them a week or two in the ground and then side dress.)

While you have the bag open throw some fertilizer at your summer annuals and perennials, too.

Azaleas and rhododendrons and camellias and other ericaceous (acid-loving) plants will benefit from a shot of acid fertilizer about now.

Planting
May is the second-best time in the veggie garden. (Everybody knows harvest is the best time.) It is time to plant beans (snap, pole, bush limas, etc.), cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, southern peas, peppers—sweet and hot, pumpkins, squash, watermelon and, for you non-competitive types, tomatoes.

Gladioli bulbs may be planted now as may begonias, geraniums and other annuals that you didn’t plant in late April.

Pruning
Spring flowering shrubs (e.g. azaleas, camellias, etc.) may be pruned as soon as the blooms fade.  Azaleas may be pruned until July 4th without cutting off next year’s buds.

Overgrown hedges can still be pruned.

Keep pinching back garden mums until mid-July.

Hand prune azalea and camellia leaf galls. They are generally not harmful to the plant, but are unattractive.

I realize your grandmother always cut back the daffodils and iris and other spring bulbs as soon as the flowers faded. I urge you to resist the temptation to carry on that tradition. The bulbs need that foliage to make the sugars that will provide the energy to bloom again next year. Wait until the foliage itself yellows before whacking it off and relegating it to the compost heap. The bulbs thank you.

Spraying

  • Always, always ONLY spray when necessary and READ & FOLLOW label directions.
  • Monitor rhododendron species including azaleas for borers. Spray if necessary.
  • Spray iris beds for iris borers which you probably will not see.
  • Scout for and spray as necessary for bag worms. They are on the move this month.
  • May is a good time to begin to try to eliminate poison ivy/oak (Rhus radicans) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Best wishes.
  • Begin spraying squash vines for borers.
  • Monitor the blueberry plants for borers. Spray as necessary.
  • Continue the never-ending spray programs for roses, fruit trees and bunch grapes.
  • Other insect pests active now include azalea lace bugs, boxwood leaf miners, euonymus and tea scales, spider mites (especially on coniferous evergreens), the ubiquitous aphids and the bane of my gardening existence—white flies.
  • If (or more likely when) your tomatoes show signs of blight, begin a fungicide regimen.

Other Things To Do in May That Could Quite Possibly Include the Garden

  • Dance around a May pole.
  • Celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
  • Mulch stuff.
  • Put out a flag on Memorial Day and thank a veteran.