Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Some Over-Wintering Greenery

Winter is by and far the easiest season to complain about and as such feels to last the longest.  The summer greens and blues fade into the drab browns and grays that adorn the landscape for months on end and can cause even the cheeriest of people to be a bit grumpy come January and February.  I do my best to take the winter months in stride and spend my days outside admiring and studying the changes one can only see during this time of year.  Despite the seemingly boring and cold months of winter a good botanist won't take this 'down time' sitting inside wishing for warmer and greener days.  It's important to not only know the plants during antithesis but also any other time of the year.  Not all plants disappear during the winter even though they met their seasonal fate with the first freeze months ago.  Many persist through the winter and let sharp-eyed hikers pick up on their evidence along the trails.  Let's take a look at a few of my favorite species I came across on a hike through Zaleski state forest the other day.

Over-wintering leaf
Puttyroot orchid

Poking out of the ground at the base of a Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) are the over-wintering leaves of the Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale).  This plant does best in rich, moist deciduous woods which is reason why it is most common in the southern half of the state and in the northeast quarter.   Commonly found in ravines and along the high terraces of streams and rivers (the latter being where this colony was found), this orchid can really be found in any appropriate forest community.  A. hyemale received its name from the mucilaginous fluid released from its root tubers when crushed and was used by early settlers as a glue to fix broken pottery while the Native Americans used it as a topical treatment for sores. 

Last year's emptied seed capsules
Leaf with attached corms

Aplectrum has a much different vegetative lifecycle than that of most plants.  A large majority of plants have a growing season of spring to autumn however this orchid reverses that order and grows from autumn to spring.  Come November the corms send up a single leaf that is light green in color and has many parallel white lines running down the center.  This robust and tough leaf survives the hardships of winter and is able to photosynthesize by avoiding the light competition during the normal growing season.  With the leaves completely off the trees and no plants growing above or around it, the leaf can soak up as much winter sunlight as nature can offer.  This leaf begins to wilt and wither just before the flowering stalk is sent up in mid-May and is completely decomposed and gone shortly after antithesis.  Usually only a few individuals within a colony of A. hyemale flower each season and can be hidden by surrounding vegetation quite easily causing this to a rather hard plant to find.  The flowers being a green color tinged with purple doesn't make the hunt any easier.   Winter is the best time to go looking for this plant when the large, green leaves stick out like a sore thumb among the brown fallen leaves.  Luckily the colony I stumbled across had a flowering stalk left over to show the dried capsules emptied of their tiny, minute seeds.  In late summer and early fall this is the only evidence that this plant ever existed at that spot; no leaf for another couple months and no colorful flowers to catch the eye.
After standing up and brushing myself off from my visit with Aplectrum hyemale it was only a few minutes later I found Ohio's only other orchid that sends up an over-wintering leaf, the Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor).

Previous year's Tipularia capsules
Over-wintering leaf of Tipularia orchid

Worldwide there are only three species of Tipularia that are known to exist; two make their home in Asia and our T. discolor here in North America.  All three send up a single leaf each winter to provide the same photosynthesis purposes as the previously mentioned Puttyroot orchid.  This species of orchid has a pretty wide range of preferable habitat within its deciduous forest home.  From old-growth forests to second growth, mesic woods to dry or rugged landscapes to flat, this orchid has been recorded growing in all of those instances.  One critical aspect however is the pH of the soil where it grows.  This orchid is largely absent from areas that are composed mainly of basic soils, doing much better in acidic to neutral conditions.  The only large difference in the life history of this plant in regards to A. hyemale is that T. discolor blooms in the summer rather than spring.

An interesting note about this species is its noticeable range extension over the past century.  Not known to exist in Illinois until 1958, this orchid has been found in several more counties as time has gone on as well as been found for the first time in Missouri in the 1980's.  Several disjunct populations have been discovered in Indiana and Michigan counties as well that had no historical documentation of being found there previously.  The cause of this range expansion most likely can be chalked up to natural phenomenon.  Many, many native plants of the past have extended and restricted their natural ranges through the natural course of time, it's just a unique and exciting opportunity to witness and document this as it happens.
At a later time I want to get into depth about the pollination of this plant as its one of the most unique and interesting of any orchid but it's time to move on to another persisting plant of winter.

Chimaphila maculata
Chimaphila maculata

Spotted Pipsissewa, Spotted Wintergreen, Striped Prince's Pine...call it what you want but its botanical name is Chimaphila maculata.  This cute, little evergreen herb can be commonly found in a variety of sandy, acidic and dry environments such as pine stands, mixed oak woodlands and well-drained upland forests.  In Ohio the range is almost entirely in the eastern half of the state.  Common interstate highways can be a excellent way to provide an instantly communicable means of a plants range and with this plant it comes in pretty handy.  Almost every county in our state east of I-71 has this plant within its boundries, while only a few to the west can claim the same.  Creeping rhizomes sending up new stems can cause this plant to colonize an area and provide a beautiful mat of thick, dark green leaves with a striking white stripe down the middle.  In mid-summer stalks arise from the stems with a single whitish/pink flower per stalk to be pollinated by varying insects.  These stalks with their swollen capsules full of seeds can persist throughout the winter as shown in the photograph above.

Goodyera pubescens leaves
Old seed capsule

Arguably our states most common and easily found orchid is the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid (Goodyera pubescens).  The beautiful rosette of evergreen leaves this species displays is one of my favorite sights any time of the year.  Each leaf has a network of veins branching out across its surface creating almost a stained glass look.  Unfortunately this beauty is noticed by many who are not willing to just look with their eyes.  Thousands of these plants end up in terrariums and in plant stores for sale where they don't last long.  Diggings like these have caused sharp population declines in some areas and even extirpation in severe cases.

Close up of seed capsule
Frequently found in well-drained upland forests that have soil of an acidic makeup as well as moss covered rocks, ledges and outcrops.  Anyone can see the leaves anytime of the year but it takes a botanist willing to brave the heat and humidity of July to see this plant in flower.  Only older, matured plants send up an a raceme of tiny, white flowers to be pollinated by a a species of tiny bees.  The flowering stalk (as shown above) can persist throughout the winter as it releases its dust sized seeds to the wind.

Rock Polypody Fern

Growing right next to each other on a moss covered rock were the last two species I found interesting on my hike.  On the left is Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), a creeping evergreen woody plant.  It can grow to form large mats on the ground and give a pretty green tinge to the blandness of the winter scene.  It grows in similar habitat to the aforementioned G. pubescens and is commonly found growing in rocky, inhospitable situations.  The small, red berries (one can be seen peeking out in the center of the picture) persist throughout the winter and are eaten by a variety of woodland critters and birds.

On the right is a species of fern found growing in similar situations as Partridgeberry, Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum).  The fronds are evergreen that can grow to be 6 to 12 inches long and shrivel up depending on how much moisture they have.  The tiny brown spots on the underside of the fronds are the spores which is how ferns reproduce.  In future posts I plan on getting into the many species of ferns Ohio has to offer but I'll leave it with just the one for today.


  1. One of your best posts yet. I found a small grove of cranefly orchid back behind Hocking one day out of bloom. I'm excited to head back there when they flower.

  2. Andrew--thanks for sending me the link to your blog and help on the id of the puttyroot orchid. I will mark a couple of areas where I have found the leaves to see if I can spot the flower in May (probably late in our mountains).