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.

The Slow March of the Mushrooms

Slightly shrunken, nondescript, this tiny mushroom faded into near-obscurity above the forest floor. Still, its presence suggested others might have taken hold, and so it was. Creeping through the mixture of damp, decaying needles and leaves, my eyes caught by unexpected bursts of color, I began to grasp the truth of Sylvia Plath’s delicate poem titled “Mushrooms.”

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Waxcap (Hygrocybe spp.)
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes.
Waxcap (Hygrocybe spp.)
We diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

As if to prove Plath’s point, this Skullcap Dapperling (Leucocoprinus brebissonii), had emerged next to a trail. Described by Louis-Luc Godey as Lepiota brebissonii in 1874, it was moved to Leucocoprinus by Marcel Locquin in 1943. Long considered a European species, it’s recently been identified in the Pacific Northwest, often occurring in large groups on forest litter.

Bemused by the Skullcap’s seemingly overnight appearance in second-growth forests around Puget Sound, the University of Washington’s Burke Herbarium has questioned how such an abundant species could have made the move unnoticed, or been overlooked in the past.

Whatever the answer, it’s still on the move, having reached the Sam Houston National Forest and the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve. Here in Texas, it most certainly has its foot in the door.

 

Comments always are welcome.