Cranefly Orchid or Crippled Cranefly

Tipularia discolor

Cranefly Orchid
Cranefly Orchid

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.

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.

Green Adder’s Mouth Orchid

Malaxis unifolia or Microstylis unifolia

Here’s a small member of the orchid family that is widely distributed across the eastern and central United States, yet is uncommon to find. Its small size combined with its overall green color make it difficult to see even when it is present in an area.

clasping leaf mid-way up the stemAs the species name unifolia suggests, it usually produces one glossy leaf midway up the stem (not a basal leaf like many other orchids). The leaf is smooth and oval, and it completely clasps the stem. Upon blooming, Green Adder’s Mouth produces a raceme with scores of tiny green flowers that are about 1/8 inch long. Initially the flowers unfold from a dense, flat, circular cluster that is quite unique. See the photos in the gallery below. The cluster may take a long time to open fully.

The tiny fruit of Green Adder’s Mouth is a green oval capsule. It will eventually produce a dust-like seed when it dries out.

Bloom time is late spring/early summer in our area. The plants on this page started blooming in June and were just going to seed in early August. Habitat: swamps, moist woods, and sometimes dry woods.

This plant gets its common name from the shape of the flower: if you can get close enough to see the tiny flowers, they look forked, like a snake’s tongue.

Photographer’s note: due to the very small size of the flowers, I was not able to obtain a crystal clear photo of an individual flower.  Therefore, two images in the gallery are courtesy of Wikimedia. The close-up photograph was taken by Rob Rutledge, Sault College,; the illustration is by M. Hart and is in the public domain.

Small Green Woodland Orchid

Platanthera clavellata

A few weeks ago, while looking for mushrooms, I spotted a small colony of orchids growing along the moist banks of a woodland creek near Pandapas Pond in Montgomery County. I immediately got pretty excited, mainly because I didn’t know what kind of orchids they were! It is sad to say, but this is the kind of thing that passes as “fun” for plant nerds, so this discovery was soon followed by several more exciting trips to the same spot in an effort to photograph the orchids as they were coming into bloom. 🙂 The result is the series of photos you’ll find in the gallery below.

I now know that this plant is called Small Green Woodland Orchid or Green Wood Orchis. The names are rather nondescript for such a pretty and exotic wildflower!

The habitat where I found this stand was densely shaded, and the understory was thick with New York, Cinnamon and Interrupted ferns.

If you were walking along in the woods you might not recognize the plant as an orchid unless it was in full bloom. Each plant has a single, dominant leaf that looks, at first glance, like a wide blade of grass. The single leaf clasps the stem, has a smooth margin, parallel veination, and is roughly oblanceolate. There may be one or two much smaller leaves further up on the main stem– and those, if present, sort of look like bracts.

The stem is smooth, unbranched, and can be 6 to 18 inches in height. A terminal cluster of flowers at the top of the stem might bear 5-20 tiny flowers. When I discovered this particular colony, none of the flowers had opened yet, but even the unopened buds were intriguing to look at. It took about two weeks for all the buds to open.

Each individual flower is very small (0.3-0.5 in), pale, cream to greenish in color, with a prominent green ovary. There are technically 3 oval sepals and 3 petals, but they are hard to tell apart; 3 of these structures join together to make up the orchid’s hood. The lower lip petal (labellum) is short and squared off, and has 3 tiny lobes at the bottom (see the photos). There is also a prominent, thin spur behind each flower; its terminal end is slightly enlarged like a “club”. This feature is responsible for 2 other common names for the plant: Club-Spur Orchid or Little Club Spur Bog Orchid.

This plant was previously named Habenaria clavellata. Bloom time is July to August. The photos below were taken during the first two weeks of July 2017.


Spring 2017 is here!

In the interest of getting things started again here at Virginia Wildflowers, I am copying some photos from last spring to re-familiarize you with the progression of spring flowers that may be blooming in your area now. I’ve been out wandering these last few weeks, keeping a close watch on the ground for the “first signs of spring”, and now- after a slow start, there is plenty to report. In fact, spring 2017 is moving quickly due to the unseasonably warm temperatures. Here’s what’s happening in my neck of the woods (Southwest Virginia, elevation 2,000 feet, April 3rd):

Skunk Cabbage is past flowering and partially leafed out in all the soggy places nearby! Trout Lilies bloomed two weeks ago! Hepatica and Bloodroot flowers have already gone to seed, but if you get out there this week you may be able to still find a few!  Twin LeafDutchman’s BreechesColtsfoot, and Rue Anemone are in full flower now.  Golden Ragwort is unfurling masses of sunny blooms too. So much excitement, so little time!

The leaves of Wild Ginger are just coming up now, and the tall Virginia Bluebells are beginning to bloom (love them!). The woods around my house are literally carpeted with tiny, white and pink Spring Beauties.  Heartleaf, Trillium and Solomon’s Seal are poking their heads out of the ground too…they are still a little apprehensive about making an appearance.

On local list serves, I’ve seen reference to the fact that Morels are even up in some places in our area. I haven’t seen any myself yet, but that doesn’t mean a dedicated hunter couldn’t find some right now if they tried.  Recent rains should definitely help things along.

Be well, and happy trails this year!


Welcome to Virginia Wildflowers!

Virginia Wildflowers is a natural history photo gallery and casual field guide to wildflowers and mushrooms. I live in Southwest Virginia, so most of my photos were taken in this part of the state.

I’ve been taking photos of local wildflowers for five years now. I try to capture close-ups of leaves, stems and flowers with my digital camera, and then I post the photos along with basic natural history information. In the spring and summer of 2015, I reordered the species by season (at least roughly), so hopefully they will be easier to search now. If you look at the list to the right, spring flowers are at the top of the list, followed by summer flowers in the middle, and fall flowers and mushrooms are near the bottom.

My goal in making this site was to teach myself about native wildflowers in my home area.  An added benefit would be to help someone else (–maybe you?) learn the same. Drop me a note if you have a comment or question, and please feel free to correct my I.D. work if you think I’ve got something misidentified. This is a hobby for me and I’m always learning.

If you arrived here because you are looking for information about a specific plant, try using the SEARCH widget in the right sidebar. Common names and latin names can be entered there. If you would just like to browse what is on the website, try scanning the archive in the right sidebar.

Most of my posts contain photo gallery/slideshows, so please be sure to click on the gallery to open a larger viewer.

Welcome to Virginia Wildflowers! Enjoy your visit!

Prince’s Pine

Lycopodium obscurum or Dendrolycopodium obscurum

The is the last of three New Year’s posts about local varieties of clubmoss.

Prince’s Pine (sometimes called Ground Pine, Princess’s Pine, or Flat-branched tree clubmoss) is an evergreen beauty.  Thanks to branching, it is a tad bushier than Ground Cedar, so each individual plant ends up looking like a tiny hemlock or pine tree. The “leaves” of the plant are best described as scalelike.

Prince’s Pine

Like the other clubmosses, the reproductive structure of Prince’s Pine is the club-like strobilus. The strobili are borne at the tip of the shoots and branches (see photo) of the plant. Each one will produce a cloud of spores in the fall.

Last November I came across several stands of Prince’s Pine near Pandapas Pond. While trying to take some photos, I noticed that the spores were easily released when I brushed my hand across the fruiting bodies. In the photos below, you can see the dust that was released when I did this. It was an impressive show!

Clubmoss spores were once collected and used as “flash powder” to produce bright light for photographers and magicians. Apparently, a little pinch of “Lycopodium powder” will produce quite a bit of light if ignited. Check out this crazy 2-minute video that demonstrates this and other strange qualities of Lycopodium spores:

Science Dump: Lycopodium powder

Clubmoss populations have been threatened by over-harvesting for Christmas decorations. This practice is not as common today as it once was, but it still goes on. A stand of Prince’s Pine can take years to reach maturity, so it cannot tolerate repeated harvesting.

Learn more about clubmosses in Virginia here.

Ground Cedar

Diphasiastrum digitatum or Lycopodium digitatum

Clubmosses (Lycopdodiaceae) are ancient evergreen perennials that can be spotted easily in the winter woods when all the other forest floor plants are “sleeping”.  They have reproductive structures that are shaped like clubs, hence the name. When I was a college student in the way-back-when, the clubmosses were all called “Lycopodiums” because they shared a common taxonomy. Today the group has undergone significant taxonomic revision resulting in several new genera, but the term “Lycopodiums” persists as a way to refer to this unique group of plants.

The most common clubmoss in my part of Virginia is called ground cedar or running cedar. Other common names for it are fan clubmoss and bears paw. This is an exceptionally beautiful evergreen plant that forms large colonies and offers a welcome reprieve to the winter-weary eye. As the various common names suggest, the greenery looks somewhat like cedar boughs. The leaves are flattened along one plane, waxy to shiny, and dark green. The plants are 4 to 8 inches in height and spread by runners above the ground. Fallen pine needles or leaves often obscure the runners.

The club-like strobili of Ground Cedar

As I noted in a previous post about another species of clubmoss, shining clubmoss, reproduction in this group of plants involves a complicated “alternation of generations” between sporophytes and gametophytes. Of the two generations, the most visible is the sporophyte generation. The above-ground “plant” that you see is the sporophyte and it produces several tall club-shaped structures called strobili. The strobili resemble tall candles on a stick. Ripened spores are released from the strobili when the wind blows or when rain or an animal physically disturbs them. This usually happens in late summer or fall. If you are lucky enough to see this, you’ll be amazed at how many spores can be produced by a stand of groundcedar!

Long ago, Native Americans discovered that clubmoss spores produce bright light when burned. That’s because the spores contain a lot of fat. Believe it or not, “Lycopodium powder” was later used by photographers to produce a flash a light before taking a picture! It was even used in fireworks! Lycopodium powder is still collected today for various commercial uses.

A wonderful natural history article about clubmoss was written by Marion Lobstein for the Prince William Wildflower Society. You should check it out to learn more about the various ways that clubmosses have been used by humans for generations. It’s worth a read!

Keep reading about related species: Shining Clubmoss, Prince’s Pine