Spend any amount of time in the woods of Carolina in early August and you are likely to encounter North Carolina's most humble and unassuming native orchid, the cranefly (or crane-fly) orchid.
Unlike the pink moccasin flower or yellow fringed orchid, the cranefly isn't large or bright or showy in any way. Its blossoms are earth-toned and mellow, blending so perfectly with the browns and tans and beiges on the sun-dappled forest floor that they are invisible to all but the most observant traveler.
Growing singly, or in clumps of a dozen or more, the tall, slender, leafless stalks are surrounded by swarms of twisting and turning blossoms, looking for all the world like the gangly, long-legged flying insects from which they've derived their common name. The plants are leafless in August, but shortly after the blooms have faded, next year's leaves will emerge.
Green on top, with perhaps a hint of purple in the veins; sometimes smooth, sometimes almost warty. The undersurface of the leaf is colored in a deep, rich purple.
From early fall through the dead of winter and well into the spring, the watchful woods-wanderer will witness the simple green leaves as they convert sunlight into energy for July and August's big bloom!
By mid-summer, the leaves have withered and gone, and the blossoms emerge. Although Tipularia discolor is the only member of its genus found in North America, it is locally quite common in North Carolina (albeit often unnoticed or overlooked).
The twisted blossoms have evolved to maximize the chance that the night-flying moths which feed on its nectar will collect their pollen sacs, called pollinaria, and transfer them to a neighboring plant.
At the risk of overwhelming our good readers with photos, we thought we'd share the good fortune of spotting these craneflies in our own backyard just before dusk when the light from the setting sun illuminated the blossoms in rather nice detail.
We're delighted that this little gathering chose to cast off their cloak of invisibility for us, and perhaps these images will help you locate some craneflies of your own when you're out and about over the next few weeks.
These bring to three the native NC orchids we've encountered in the past week, and we can only wonder what next week will bring...