The Orchid Named for an Insect

Crane fly (Platytipula sp.)  ~ photo by artyangel/Pixabay

One recent February day, the temperature refused to rise above 28°F, and ice still lurked in the shadows. Two days later, the temperature had risen to 50°, and the ice was gone. Two days after that, I found the first of what would become dozens of over-sized and long-legged insects lollygagging around the outside walls and window screens of my home.

For years after moving to Texas, I called them mosquito hawks, and believed their purpose in life was to eat mosquitos. Eventually, I learned the truth; they’re crane flies, and if they eat anything at all after hatching, it’s unlikely to be anything more than a bit of nectar. After emerging from their larval stage at winter’s end, their only purpose is to mate, lay eggs, and die — all within the space of a very few days. 

Some people consider crane flies a nuisance, particularly when they find their way indoors, but they don’t bite, they don’t carry disease, and they make perfectly safe play toys for cats.

Oddly enough, crane flies also have offered their common name to an orchid  I discovered deep in the east Texas woods.

Buds of the Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor)

The Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), is a perennial terrestrial orchid, and the only species of the genus Tipularia found in North America. In part because of the length of its nectar spurs, it was named for its supposed resemblance to the insect.

Scattered throughout the southeastern United States, the orchids prefer the humus-rich soils of deciduous forests or areas with acid soils, such as oak-pine forests. This group was thriving in deep shade beneath a beech tree in the Big Thicket of east Texas.

When I found the plants last August, their leaves already had disappeared, as they do prior to the orchid’s bloom. The leaf emerges in fall, then withers before flower clusters appears in mid-to-late summer. I’ve never found the oval-shaped leaves, but with luck I might find them this month; with purple undersides and purple spots on top, they should be easy to identify.

The leafless flowering stems, which bloom from the bottom up, can be as much as 20 inches tall; these were somewhat shorter, measuring an average of 12 inches. The flowers’ less than vibrant color, combined with deep shade from the trees and mottled sunlight, made photos somewhat difficult, but summer’s coming, and I may have another opportunity. 

Unfortunately, while we can count on an abundance of craneflies each spring, cranefly orchids don’t bloom every year. Perhaps, if this group is taking the year off, another will be waiting.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Gathering and Going

So far off the road I never would have seen them, a group of twenty Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) caught the eye of the friend who’d accompanied me to the Brazoria Refuge last Sunday. “Cranes!” she exclaimed. “Turn around!” And so I did.

Too distant for clear images, and made somewhat dull by dim, foggy light, two of the birds’ primary field marks — their red crowns and the funny, feather-duster-like tail feathers called bustles — still were visible. If you enlarge the image, even their colorful eyes can be detected.

The cranes are winter visitors to Texas, arriving in October or November and generally departing by February or early March. Gregarious by nature, they can be found feeding in fields, pastures, and coastal marshes. Flock size varies from place to place; this group of twenty is typical of what I’ve seen in our area.

I didn’t expect to see cranes in flight, and wasn’t prepared for the suddenness of their departure. Still, one primary difference between Sandhill Cranes and Great Blue Herons became obvious as they rose above the trees: cranes fly with outstretched necks and legs, while the Great Blue Heron curls its head back and rests it on its body while in flight. As the group gathered more tightly in the sky, I was able to include all twenty birds in a photo.


Another difference helps to distinguish airborne herons and cranes. The Great Blue Heron’s wing beats are slow, and the bird rarely brings its wings above parallel. Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand, are given to sharp, snappy wing movements, and often raise their wings above their bodies.

I hear Sandhill Cranes far more often than I see them. Their calls in flight are  instantly recognizable, and unforgettable. I was lucky on this day not only to see the birds but to hear them as well, as they prepared to join others of their kind in their great migration.


Comments always are welcome.
Clicking on any image will provide more detail.

A Surprising, but Seasonal, Survivor

On February 27, just one week after the last hard freeze warning was lifted for the Houston area and any remaining snow and ice had disappeared,  this hardy, ten-petal anemone (Anemone berlandieri) was blooming beside a Brazoria County road.

In normal years, the Anemone is one of our earliest signs of spring. Appearing in late January or early February, it blooms only through April or May. Despite its apparent delicacy and small size — an inch or inch-and-a-half in diameter —  it clearly can cope with sub-freezing temperatures and icy insults.

Like other anemones, this Texas native sometimes is called ‘windflower,’ although ‘thimble flower’ is equally common. The species epithet refers to Jean Louis Berlandier (c.1805-1851), a French botanist who studied plants in Mexico and Texas.

Berlandier joined the Mexican Boundary Commission in 1826 as a botanist and zoologist. In 1829, he settled in Matamoros, Mexico, where he served as a physician and pharmacist. Unfortunately, his life ended in 1851 when, while crossing the San Fernando River on horseback, unusually swift currents pulled him under, and he wasn’t able to survive.

 

Comments always are welcome.