Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale), West-central Ohio/Jim McCormac
Nature: Puttyroot orchids can grow stalks up to two feet high, bedecked with colorful flowers
June 5, 2022
Thoughts of orchids conjure images of tropical places and fantastically ornate flowers. A taste of this botanical exotica can be sampled in local nurseries and box stores. Strange and beautiful cymbidiums, dendrobiums and phalaenopsis are there for the taking.
The orchidaceae is the second-largest family of flowering plants (the sunflower family is first) with 28,000 species so far identified. Orchids reach maximum diversity in tropical regions, and a visit to equatorial jungles would make an orchidophile’s head spin.
One need not venture to Colombia, Indonesia, or the Philippines to see orchids, though. While Ohio’s 47 native orchid species seems paltry in comparison to the 4,000 species in Colombia, ours are also interesting and often quite showy.
I did qualify 47 orchid species with “native.” There is an introduced Eurasian oddity called the helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) that sometimes turns up in mulch beds and other waste places.
Back in April, naturalist extraordinaire Paul Knoop sent me a message about an amazing woodland in Clark County. A mutual friend, John Ritzenthaler, had discovered a population of puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) that had to be seen to be believed.
John was happy to show me the site, and I visited on May 24. While I’ve seen puttyroot many times, never have I seen or heard of a population of such epic scope as this one. Ritzenthaler fastidiously documented the conspicuous overwintering leaves via 690 photographs, then tallied them all — 11,221 leaves, each representing a separate plant!
Puttyroot is unusual in that the single leaf emerges in fall and remains evergreen through winter. Photosynthesis occurs at this time and is most efficient at temperatures just above freezing. The big green leaves are finely pinstriped with white, suggesting the style of an old-time gangster’s zoot suit.
By the time of my May visit, the leaves had mostly withered away. But I was there to see the showy flowering stalks, and the plants were in peak bloom. John led Chelsea Gottfried (co-author of mine on an upcoming book) and me through the 20-acre woods and we tallied all flowering stems that we saw.
Our total: a whopping 600-plus flowering orchids! As we only got through about half the woods, we estimated that there were over 1,000 flowering plants. That would be about 10% of the total plants that John counted from leaves. Many plants are too young to flower or for whatever reason, remain dormant some years.
A big old puttyroot can send up a flower stalk nearly 2 feet in height and beset with up to 20 small maroon and lemon flowers. The colorful spikes appear surreal, arising from bare leaf litter.
As with many orchids, most of the life cycle is subterranean. Puttyroot’s foundation is a thick pair of branched roots. The divisions are known as corms. These underground parts are intimately wedded to specialized soil-dwelling mycorrhizal fungi, which help nourish the orchid. Orchid/fungi relationships are extremely hard to duplicate, thus the high failure rate of transplanted wild orchids.
The curious name puttyroot also stems from the corms. Long ago, a sticky substance was harvested from the roots and used to repair pottery.
Puttyroot might be considered the spring wildflower orchid. It grows in rich forest humus, often in association with later-blooming vernal flowers. Such was the case in this magical woodland. The puttyroot was surrounded by appendaged and large-leaved waterleaf, golden alexanders, synandra (a spectacular mint rare in Ohio), wild ginger and many others.
I appreciate John showing us this amazing orchid patch, and his work in documenting the scope of the population.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.