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Green in the Winter

January 6, 2016  |  Permalink

You may think when reading my title that this is about evergreens, but it’s not. Oh sure, evergreens are the color in an otherwise gray and brown winter forest, but not all the green in the winter is evergreen. There are some special herbaceous plants that grow leaves starting in the fall and shed them in the spring. It seems like these plants have it backwards, like they are opposite of the normal growing season. Really they are always there with their underground bulbs. I am talking about two species of Orchid called Cranefly Orchid and Putty Root or Adam and Eve.

The Cranefly Orchid grows winter leaves among the dry fallen tree leaves of the forest floor. They are not smooth; I relate the look and feel to seer sucker fabric. The real treat of finding the Cranefly is when you turn the leaf over and see the deep satiny purple underneath.  After the leaves wither in the spring the plant will grow a slender flower stalk. The tiny flowers are clustered around the 8 to 26 inch stalk and are watery, translucent and purplish green. They are asymmetrical, somewhat resembling a cranefly. Finding these flowers in June is a treat if you take the time to look at them with a hand lens magnifier. They are hard to find in the lush green forest.

If you see long oval leaves on the forest floor in the winter that are decorated with longitudinal pin stripes you have the Putty Root. The name refers to the sticky paste, made by crushing the bulbs and roots, which was used to mend pottery. The name Adam and Eve refers to the paired bulbs. The flowers of the Putty Root are also a hard to find June treat with various shades of green, yellow, and brown with a white lip and magenta markings. The shape of the flowers is made up of 2 arching petals and 3 spreading sepals. They are an intricate delight to see.

So, why would these Orchids have leaves in the winter but not in the summer? That is because they are adapted to living in a deciduous forest. When does the sunlight reach the forest floor where they live? Mostly that is in the winter, a season filled with many surprises.

About the author

Tennessee State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath is a native of west Tennessee, where his family’s farm was just 15 miles from the Tennessee River. After graduating from UT Martin and working seasonally for several years for the National Park Service and Tennessee State Parks, he has spent the last 33 years with state parks. Randy worked as a ranger/naturalist at South Cumberland State Park on the Cumberland Plateau and at Radnor Lake Natural Area in Nashville until 2007 when he was given the opportunity to be the statewide naturalist for the state park system.