Wednesday, May 16, 2012

LOOK FOR: Putty root

For the longest time, this leaf was a mystery to me.

Photo credit: cotinis

We see it scattered infrequently through forests around the DC metro area in the winter. Always just one leaf.

The pinstripes are pretty noticeable, right? If you know a little botany, you know that the fact that those leaf veins are parallel is significant. It places this plant in the monocot class. What's in that class? Grasses, but this clearly isn't a grass. Onions, daffodils, tulips...pretty sure it's not any of those. Orchids...could it be an orchid?

With a little research we figured out that this must be the leaf of the putty root orchid. A distinguishing characteristic of the putty root is that the leaf dies back before the flowers bloom. As with ramps, you'll see a leaf, or a flower, but almost never both at once.

And so for years we've been saying, oh look, there are the orchid leaves. How nice, that orchids grow here.

If we could just see the orchids. You know, the flower part.

Photo credit: cotinis
But it turns out that it's a lot easier to see a pinstriped dark green leaf in the middle of winter than it is to see a putty root flower in spring.

These are not the hot pink blooms you might think of when you think "orchid." They're more of a light green edged in a brownish purple...not colors that will catch your eye among the bright colors of spring wildflowers. The flower stalk can be 20 inches tall, but you could walk right by it without noticing.

And so, when I finally saw a putty root in flower, it wasn't because its flowers caught my eye. It was because I stopped to look at a bright yellow flower right next to it.

It took me several seconds to even notice the camouflaged orchid flowers. Then it took me several more seconds to realize what I was looking at.
And then, I looked in the leaves at the base of the flower stalk. And sure enough, even though the leaf was shriveled and brown, those pinstripes stood out. I had found the putty root at last.

Putty Root - closeup
Photo credit: NC Orchid