Creature Feature: Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale)

The leaf of Aplectrum hyemale provides a stark contrast against the deciduous leaf litter. Photo by Emma Dean.

By Emma Dean, CG Science Editor

While taking an autumn or winter stroll through a deciduous forest such as the ones within southeastern Ohio, it’s fairly easy to spot the single green leaf protruding from the dull-colored leaf litter.  In fact, the word hyemale has the Latin meaning of winter.  This green leaf that emerges during late fall and persists through winter is somewhat leathery in texture on one side and textured similarly to a plastic table cloth on the other.

Just before blooming, the leaf will go through senescence, which would be sometime between mid spring and early summer.  This particular orchid has an array of possible bloom colors, ranging from pale yellow, violet, white and cream.

Despite its attractive bloom and unusual hibernal leaf, its moniker refers to a mucus-like fluid which can be removed from the tubers when the tubers are crushed.  It’s believed that early American settlers took advantage of this fluid to repair broken pottery while Native Americans used the fluid for medicinal purposes.

Puttyroot orchid is found all over the eastern United States and Canada, going as far south as George and as north as Quebec.  Its range extends from the edge of the east coast westward to Kansas and Oklahoma as well as Arizona.  However, its presence does not necessarily indicate a prevalent population.

In Connecticut, puttyroot is identified by the USDA as a plant of special concern while it is endangered in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.  It is also categorized as threatened in Vermont.

 

The hibernal leaf has a unique texture. Photo by Emma Dean.

Fast Facts:

  • Though puttyroot tends to favor deciduous forests, it has also been found in coniferous forests as well as coniferous-deciduous forests.
  • The single winter leaf is also referred to as a hibernal leaf.
  • Another name for the puttyroot orchid is Adam-and-Eve-Root Orchid.
  • The puttyroot orchid tends to grow in small colonies with only a few plants producing flowers in a season.
  • This orchid is autogamous which means that it is self-fertilizing.  Because it is autogamous, the seed set tends to be somewhat high.

Sources:

USDA plant profile

University of Wisconsin-Madison Herbarium

Dave’s Garden

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