Craig Freeman

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Winter Orchids

winter orchid

When the cold winds of November tug the last leaves from the maples, basswoods, and elms, orchids probably are the farthest thing from most Kansans’ minds.  However, fall, winter, and early spring are the best seasons to search for one of the state’s more secretive plants – the puttyroot orchid or Adam-and-Eve [Aplectrum hyemale (Muhl. ex Willd.) Nutt.].  The plant’s specific epithet “hyemale”, referring to winter, alludes to the plant’s habit of producing a winter leaf.  The name puttyroot is a reference to sticky substance released from the crushed tubers, which usually occur in pairs (hence the name Adam-and-Eve).

Puttyroot has evolved a fascinating strategy to survive in the low-light environments of rich, deciduous forests.  As forest canopies develop in the spring, light limits the ability of understory plants to photosynthesize.  Consequently, many herbaceous species flower and fruit in the spring, before the canopy fills in, or in the fall, when the canopy begins to thin.  Puttyroot takes this strategy to an extreme.  Each plant produces a single, elliptic, dark green, pleated, 3-6 inch-long leaf in the fall.  The ground-hugging leaf remains green and photosythetic from fall through winter and into spring, producing sugars needed by the plant to grow.  From late May into mid June, some plants will produce a single, 10-20 inch-tall flowering, each bearing a dozen whitish purple or brownish white flowers near the tip.  Ribbed, pendent fruits – each about 1 inch long – mature through the summer and persist into the fall, leaving another clue to the plant’s presence.  

Populations of puttyroot are documented in 10 eastern Kansas counties (Anderson, Coffey, Crawford, Douglas, Franklin, Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn, Miami, and Wyandotte).  Most occur in moist, maple-basswood forests or cottonwood-dominated floodplain forests along rivers and streams.  Populations generally comprise a few, closely-spaced individuals, but large populations can contain several hundred plants.

The next time you head out to your favorite forest trail for a fall or winter walk, keep an eye to the ground.  If you are lucky, you may spy the distinctive leaves of this forest gem.  If you do find this rare Kansas orchid, plan a return visit to marvel at its amazing flowers and fruits in the dim light of the forest floor.