Michigan Orchids in December, are you crazy?

While most folks think that the onset of winter after the tree leaves have fallen means and end to botanizing in Michigan until spring, that is not necessarily so. While I have shared on identifying plants by the brown remains or trees by their bark and buds in winter, there are some that are actively growing at this time of year. Even though some have late stray blooms such as Witch Hazel, False-rue Anemone, Black-eyed Susan, Dandelion and others, there are two orchids in Michigan that send up leaves in the fall and photosynthesize, producing food in winter.

Michigan Orchids in December? People think I’m crazy when I tell them I’m headed north in December looking for native orchids in Michigan. Well, I might be crazy but I found green orchid leaves in December in norther and southern Michigan.

Tipularia discolor, Cranefly Orchid is only known from Berrien county in Michigan according to the Michigan Flora. I am told it is found on Trible lands and not accessible by the public.

Aplectrum hyemale, Putty-root or Adam-and-Eve Orchid is found in rich forest in the southern half and northern counties of the lower peninsula of Michigan. Colonies are usually not massive, therefore making it a bit difficult to find. Once you know where to look it can be pretty easy to spot the unique leaves above the brown tree leaves on the ground. After receiving some advice from my orchid enthusiast friend Steve, I recently headed north in search of this lifer for me. The gps coordinates led me right to a nice area with several small patches of leaves in Cheboygan county. A couple days later, I headed south to Cass county, within 25 to 30 miles from the Indiana boarder in search of this orchid closer to home. There I found several patches ranging from one to a dozen or more leaves.

Aplectrum leaves are unique and easily distinguishable with the prominent white parallel veins. These white veins are slightly raised from the darker green background of the leaf. The leaves come up in the fall to take advantage o the leafless tree canopy above, allowing them to absorb all of the available sunlight. They are also very efficient at photosynthesizing in temperatures down to around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. With the weather that we have had this year being generally warmer and no snow, I wonder if there will be more flowers next spring? I am curious since only a couple of individual plants in a given area bloom each spring, most do not. The leaves will wither in spring and sometime around Memorial Day a few will bloom. Since the flowers are not easily seen when blooming, it is easier to find the leaves in the fall and then you will know where to look for flowers in the spring time. Last season’s seed pods are also visible now but they can blend into the brown of the dead leaves behind them.

So, while many spring ephemerals come up early and take advantage of the leafless canopy in spring, these two orchids do the same in reverse by leafing out in the fall after the leaves have dropped. Hopefully in the spring I can share pictures of the flowers of Putty-root with you.

This is just another reminder that there is much to find and enjoy in Michigan all year if you are willing to get out and explore.

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