Cranefly Orchid or Crippled Cranefly

Tipularia discolor

Updated August, 2017.

It is 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), the plant pushes up a very pretty, 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.

Cranefly Orchid
Cranefly Orchid

All the features of the flowers are so delicate 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, which blooms much earlier in the summer.

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. I found these in various local places: on the Gateway Trail, near Pandapas Pond, and along Deerfield Trail in Blacksburg.

Another orchid blooming this time of year with a similar coloration is Coralroot.

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.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Beautiful shot of this plant against the sun dappled background

  2. Nora Cox says:

    Not easy to get pics of these in the late summer shade of the forest. Good work!

    1. Gloria says:

      You’re right about that! They are so finely structured, it is hard to focus on them–even in good light!

  3. Diane Keenan says:

    I was elated to see the Cranefly Orchid I discovered this summer has its leaf and seed pods. There is another leaf a few inches away, as well. What I’m curious about is that my soecimen’s leaf is the underneath reddish color on top and a different color below. I’m happy to share a photo if I know how. Perhaps it is because it’s not in deep forest but at the end of my driveway growing in moss under tree cover? I have placed a little fence around it to protect it.

  4. Peggy says:

    Just found one in a client’s yard in Williamsburg

    1. Gloria says:

      Yes, I’ve started seeing the leaves in my neighborhood too. They are such a deep, rich color! Lovely!

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