This little orchid prefers winter

Posted by KristenM on January 8th, 2010

Forget about a tree growing in Brooklyn, there’s an orchid growing in the snow. Its name is Aplectrum hyemale. It’s a clever and contrarian little thing.

Aplectrum hyemale

The orchid Aplectrum hyemale is not afraid of a little snow. Winter is the perfect time for it to photosynthesize.

Aplectrum hyemale waits until the fall to unfurl a solitary leaf. It’s an ellipse of broad green with thin cream stripes. The plant sits low to the ground. In the summertime it would have to compete like crazy for an ounce of sunlight. And it would likely lose out to oaks, tulip trees and the like. During the winter though, after the forest canopy has been stripped bare, Aplectrum hyemale can get all the rays it needs. So a winter green it is.

A bare forest canopy.

'Come on sun, show me what you've got,' says the little orchid.

Jay O’Neill works in the plant ecology lab here at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. He keeps tabs on all the wild orchids that root in the temperate woods surrounding SERC. He says Aplectrum hyemale will flower in late spring, after the leaf senesces, or decomposes. Then when summer’s warm air hits, the fruit can mature in peace. That may be awhile.

In the meantime, you might be able to find the humble leaf of an Aplectrum hyemale near you. According to the USDA, this orchid has been found throughout the eastern half of the United States and as far west as Arizona. One key exception: Florida. You have to respect a plant that shuns the Sunshine State for the snows of the north.

Snow-covered forest

The temperate woods surrounding SERC are home to two winter green orchids. One is Aplectrum hyemale, the other is Tipularia discolor.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. sb says:

    Cool photos and nice writing. I never heard of a green orchid in winter- that sounds amazing!

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