“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/In dark woods…lost.” The tangle of old logging roads and abandoned trails north of Kings’ Farm turned me around this morning, adding a half hour or more to my trek. Virgil did not appear. He never does. But, by getting lost, I did stumble on some great little plants: about a dozen cranefly orchids in the leaf litter on the side of an old trail.
Unlike most other woodland plants, cranefly orchids grow their leaves in the fall, keep them through the winter, then let them die in spring. Later, in midsummer, the spindly flower stalk emerges without any leaves, using belowground food stores to power its growth. So, this orchid’s life is powered by the weak winter sun.
The green, upper surface of the leaves is pleated, giving it a crinkled appearance. More striking, though, is the purple underside of the leaf. Sometimes this purple bleeds into the upper surface, especially later in winter.
This purple pigment is there to protect the leaf on cold days. When the photosynthetic machinery inside the leaf is iced-up, it can no longer absorb the energized electrons that sunlight knocks free from chlorophyll and other green pigments. The purple pigment soaks up these crazed electrons, keeping the leaf’s innards safe.