Sunday, January 11, 2015

That Strange Little Orchid That Grows in Mid-Winter

Today we climbed up to a steep winding trail at the north end of campus with some friends.  I hadn't walked that trail for several years and was happy to see that someone has planted a bench up at the high meadow where one branch of the trail comes out of the woods.  This is an astonishing bench. It seems to be carved from a single piece of wood, probably an old downed tree.  It holds the sitter like an old wooden boat, its gently sloping back allowing for a bit of post-hiking slumping while the sitter looks out over the valley to the mountains to the south.  The view takes in two barns, the flock of sheep and their watch donkey, a herd of black cows, two silos, and several fields as well as the north face of Jones mountain.

Along parts of the trail we saw a number of those strange dry-looking green and white striped leaves that I used to think were some kind of early lady slipper.  Now I know they're little orchid plants called Aplectrum hymale or putty root.  The odd thing about these plants is that their chlorophyll is present and active in the winter, even in weather like this week when the temperature hovers near and well below freezing.  The single leaf comes out of the ground at its point of attachment to its corm, from which it gets its common name of putty root.  The corm is made of very sticky gooey material that the early Cherokee and Pisgah people around here used for mending pottery and other adhesive-needing jobs.  The underside of the leaf is either green or, in the case of many that we saw today, purple.  In late spring the leaf disappears and a single stalk bearing a raceme of small flowers rises from the point of attachment of the leaf to the corm.  Unusual for members of the orchidaceae family, these flowers often produce seeds that can be germinated fairly easily.

1 comment:

  1. what a cool plant! i wonder if it would survive in a protected place up here? i love the idea of native plants making appearances in odd places.