It is mid-August, and there is a mysterious orchid blooming in the woods right now. It is tall and delicate, oddly conspicuous, yet almost invisible to the eye. It is called the Crane-fly Orchid.
Like Putty-root Orchid, the crane-fly orchid has a 2-part life cycle. In the fall (October), each plant pushes up a single, oval leaf that is green above and purple below. Sometimes the surface of the leaf is spotted. The leaf stays green all winter and then dies back completely by May or June. Two months later, when there is no longer any sign of the original leaf, a flower stalk emerges from the ground and grows up to 18 inches in height. By late August or September, the stalk is resplendent with up to 40 small orchid flowers.
All the features of the flowers are so fine that they appear like the spindly legs of a cranefly, hence the first common name. And because the flowers are somewhat asymmetrical, the twisted shape explains the origin of the second common name for the plant, which is crippled cranefly.
But what about the color of the orchid? They are commonly described as translucent, with a hue that hovers between pink and brown. Personally, the color really reminds me of another exotic local, the Lily-leaved Twayblade.
A final common name for this native perennial is Elfin Spur. The term must refer to the diminutive size of the individual flowers, and the long, odd spur that protrudes from the back of each one.
If you have a patient eye, look for the cranefly orchid growing in late summer in the mixed hardwood forests of Southwest Virginia. It likes rich, acidic soil. Colonies thrive on shaded stream banks or in other damp woodland locations.
Illustration of the Cranefly Orchid thanks to: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 573.