Cold December skies darken the woodland trails around you. Heading back to your car, you note how dark it’s getting by only 4 p.m. The cloudy day and setting sun seem to only emphasize the slumber of winter’s nature. Gone are the months of vibrancy and color, making way for gray and brown. Nearly to your car, now you spot something… green?
Yes, it is! Something green cuts through the woods and grabs your attention with an intensity you thought only spring could bring. As you move to inspect, the image becomes clear. Bright green leaves protrude directly from the earth, a living oasis among dormancy. Singular smooth leaves accented white and olive by parallel veins running from the soil to the tip. A curious find for sure, so grabbing your field guide, fingers flip through pages as your eyes examine the pictures.
Finally, you find the image that matches, but the answer to the plant’s identity surprises you: an orchid?
Orchids are everywhere. Indigenous to six continents and nearly every country in the world, Indiana alone hosts more than 40 species. Though often more discreet than their tropical counterparts, native Indiana orchids can showcase some of the most interesting flowers and beautiful leaves you can find in the woods. There are several species, in fact, that produce brilliant foliage over winter and have none during the summer.
The Puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hymale) happens to be one of these species. Leafing out during September through October and persisting through spring, these common native orchids decorate the forest floor with large oval leaves throughout winter. The small brown flowers of this species can be found in May through June and are pollinated by bees. The name “puttyroot” refers to the sticky substance produced by crushing the pseudobulb. Historically, this substance was even used to repair pottery.
Cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor) behave much the same way as the puttyroot. Although leafing out in the autumn and persisting over winter like the puttyroot, cranefly leaves are oval and green with dark purple polka dots speckling the upper side of the leaf. The underside of the leaf is a solid purple color; the stark change in color is referenced within its species name “discolor.” The flowers which appear in July through September are small and brown, resembling the insect of its namesake, the cranefly. Different from the puttyroot, this plant is most commonly moth pollinated.
Both the puttyroot and the cranefly orchid are found in rich, moist woodlands. Though fairly common, they are delightful to find on a hike and serve as a signal for healthy soil. For orchids to germinate, the soil must contain certain types of mycorrhizal fungus. Since orchid seeds have virtually no energy reserves, the symbiotic relationship with these fungi is critical as the mycorrhizae provide nutrients to allow for germination. The presence of this fungi serves as an indicator of healthy under-earth interactions among not only orchids, but for most plants and trees.
As dusk casts shadows onto your field guide, you read the words again. “Aplectrum hymale, the puttyroot orchid.” “Amazing,” you think to yourself as you snap a picture of the plant and head back to your car.
The faux bland state of nature during the winter can be off-putting to many, but do not let the leafless trees fool you. Life and vibrance can be found in a forest anytime of the year, just as long as you know where to look.
Jake Gamble is the Stewardship Coordinator for Red-tail Land Conservancy. Impassioned by land conservation, he strives to protect and preserve the natural quality of Indiana while inspiring others to do the same.
Pictured above: Puttyroot Orchid leaves in Munsee Woods Nature Preserve