Have a broken clay pot??

Now that I have finished the survey of all fifty state wildflowers, I need to find a new topic. Since I am riding a wildflower high, I have decided after reviewing many suggestions to take a detailed look at endangered or rare wildflowers in the state of Georgia. Some of the ones I am going to choose are not necessarily endangered but, instead, are seldom seen by wildflower folk such as I am. Ant state could have been chosen but I will concentrate on my home state and north Georgia in particular so I can get out, hike, and visit these rare to me jewels of nature.

The first I have chosen is at the southern limit of its range and seldom seen in Georgia. It is an orchid – not especially showy but unique and worthy of a second look or even a first for most people. It has a distant cousin which we will also review as they are easily confused but after reading this article , you won’t have any problems in discerning the difference. My subject is the Putty-Root Orchid – Aplectrum hyemale.

See – I already have your attention because you have never heard of it, have you?

The Putty-Root Orchid — no leaves when blooming.

Aplectrum is the only member of its genus although it is a member of the extensive Orchidiceae family as is its relative the Crane-Fly Orchid – Tipularia discolor – also an only member of its genus in North America. That fact alone makes both special as there are no other plants like the two of them.

The Crane-Fly Orchid – similar to the Putty but with a nectar spur on each blossom.

The first thing you notice about both plants when you see them in the Spring is that there are no leaves.

The single foot-long leaf starts growing in the Fall, matures in the winter, and shrivels in the Spring before shooting an asparagus-like stem 18” upward.

Putty-Root has no leaf spots.

On each stem could be a dozen or more 1/2 inch blooms a yellow-brown in color with a distinctive white frilly lip which serves as a landing pad for native moths. The Putty-Root has no scent and in fact it has no nectar! So why do moths even consider it? The answer is why I am linking the Putty-Root Orchid and the Crane-Fly Orchid in one article.

The Crane-Fly flower has a pleasant scent and has rich nectar so the Putty-Root is a mimic of sorts luring moths to help pollinate it even though it offers nothing in return. The Crane-Fly is similarly colored but has a very distinctive spur on the flower which contains nectar and that appendage is several times longer than the blossom. That is how you tell the difference between the two. Check out the spur on the Crane-Fly and return to the Putty-Root. How could you ever get them confused!

Crane-Fly and spur.

Another more laborious way to tell the difference is to carefully dig up the root system of each. The Crane-Fly has a single corm whereas the Putty-Root has two corms connected by a thick rhizome. The name, Putty-Root, comes from a gelatinous substance in the double corms that Native Americans used to repair cracks and broken pieces of their clay pots. The Crane-Fly Orchid does not have this sticky glue.

Putty-Root has a double corm connected by a rhizome.

What about the single winter leaf? Could that help distinguish the two species? Both have a single leaf and follow the same life cycle although they do have a subtle difference which will help you identify the two. The Putty-Root is a single medium green color with parallel veins. The Crane-Fly is a little darker but the same shape and size but it has spots! In the photographs you can clearly see the difference but if you encounter one solitary leaf in the woods, it may be hard to tell which one it is.

The Crane-Fly Orchid leaf as spots! Compare with the Putty-Root leaf above.

Now you know how to tell these interesting native orchids apart. Both live in leaf-strewn forests and are uncommon but not endangered. As you hike the hilly trails in North Georgia or along the ridges on the Alabama-Georgia state line, look for the single leaf poking out of the leaf litter during the colder seasons and the asparagus-like shoot in March, April, or May. If you find one, treasure the moment as few Georgia hikers have ever seen either orchid, its leaf, or root and even fewer can tell the difference between Aplectrum or Tipularia.

A Putty-Root Orchid in subtle bloom – no spur, no nectar, no scent.
A Crane-Fly Orchid – Note the Spur just below the main reddish-brown flower stem.

That was interesting and would you like to see a few more native orchids? I would. How about one named Lady Tresses?

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