Probably no other popular group of animals illustrates the plant-animal link as vividly as butterflies and moths. Their larvae in nearly all cases are utterly dependent upon plants for food, and these relationships often are quite specific. At last weekend's Appalachian Butterfly Conference, we certainly didn't ignore the plants, and many skilled botanists were around. Early August is an incredible time in regards to floristic diversity in Shawnee State Forest and the nearby prairies of Adams County. Most of our participants were totally into learning about plants, especially how they interact with butterflies.
Following are two very cool orchids that we found over the weekend.
Ghostly pale spires of flowering Cranefly Orchid, Tipularia discolor, thrust forth in the dappled light of an oak forest. This is not an in-your-face orchid, and even plants in full bloom would be quite easy to pass by. Tipularia refers to a genus of craneflies: long-legged gangly insects that look like mosquitoes on steroids. The flowers of this odd orchid are reminiscent of these insects.
Closer view of the spindly flowers with their long spurs. Cranefly Orchid is easier to find in winter. In late fall, long after the flowering stalks have faded, the plants send up evergreen leaves that are dark green above and dark purple below. These leaves overwinter and photosynthesize, providing energy to the roots. By late spring, the leaves have withered into nothingness, and in mid-summer these strange flowering shoots jut above the leaf litter. The flowers are pollinated by night-flying moths in the Noctuid Family. The orchid's flowers are noctodorous - they issue a fragrance only at night, to attract their nocturnal pollinators. The oddly asymmetrical flower arrangement ensures that the moth's fuzzy eyeballs will be forced into contact with pollen, which will then be transported to the next orchid. It's an odd and wacky world out there.
Thanks to the sharp eyes of Kevin Bradbury, we found a much showier representative of the Orchidaceae in this powerline right-of-way.
This one can't be missed. It's the threatened Yellow Fringed Orchid, Platanthera ciliaris, which is only known from three small regions of Ohio. There were over 100 plants growing in this sunny opening; one of the better populations known. These orchids were a real hit, and nearly every group stopped by to pay homage.
Few plants have the shock factor of Yellow Fringed Orchids. The color alone is enought to stop one in their tracks, and even plant-haters would feel some admiration for it, I suspect. Many orchids are highly dependent on disturbance, whether it be mowing, fire, or soil disturbance. This powerline was probably mowed last year, stimulating a healthy emergence of orchids this year.