Saturday, December 10, 2011


I’ll admit that the winter woodland landscape can appear rather desolate compared to the lush growth of summer, but it’s far from being a floristic wasteland. Plants in general exhibit a wide range of different survival strategies. A key factor in that survival is the ability to capture enough sunlight to produce and store the energy needed for life. Many plant species have adapted to a life cycle that allows them avoid competition with other plants by utilizing the winter sunlight.

Winter plants are often small, ground hugging species. The area near the ground warms more quickly and remains warm longer than the air just inches above. Sometimes the difference can be minimal, but it’s enough to allow photosynthesis to be a little more efficient. Low growing plants are also less likely to lose moisture to dry, winter winds. Unfortunately, many people fail to notice the winter greenery because they believe no plants would be growing in winter.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a person in their woods when the person began kicking and scuffing at a leaf similar to the one shown here. I watched for a few seconds and then asked if he had something against orchids. He gave me a puzzled look, something I’ve come to expect when I talk to people, and asked what I meant. I pointed out that the leaf he was mangling belonged to the Puttyroot, Aplectrum hyemale, an orchid that does the majority of its growing through the winter. I had to get his face right down to the ground before he could clearly see that it was a fresh, green and growing leaf. Just for the record, I asked him to get down and look at the leaf. I didn’t push him down.

Puttyroot leaves emerge in late fall and persist until spring. They’re a rather common plant in many woodlands, but people don’t notice because their minds tell them that botany season is over. I’m always bothered when I see a picture of a winter landscape with a caption that says “It’s winter, so nothing is growing here now.” The plants may not be up poking you in the face, but if I couldn’t find a few plants taking advantage of the winter sunlight, I’d be wondering what was wrong.

By the time the flower blooms in early summer, the leaf is gone. This is unfortunate, because the flowers are almost impossible to see. The best strategy for viewing Puttyroot in bloom is to find the winter leaves and then revisit that spot during the blooming season. But don’t miss the chance to get a close look at these lovely leaves. The lumpy, wrinkled appearance makes some people think the leaves are diseased or damaged. This is the natural look and I think it just gives the leaves a bit of character.

A close-up of the leaf reveals some very attractive patterns and designs. I think the wave pattern created by the two bands of veins is particularly neat. The whole image reminds me of the most common and sought after pattern bred into so many of our common houseplants. It you’re out enjoying a winter’s stroll, pay some attention to what might be green and growing beneath your feet.


  1. Hi Steve, I've been following your blog for a little while now, but I don't think I've commented before. Thanks so much for today's post! I had no idea these plants even existed, and now I know to keep my eyes open for them as I walk though the woods here in Connecticut. :) What awesome little plants!

  2. Hi Elizabeth. I hope you're able to find some of these orchids in your woods. If not, I'm sure you can find something equally as interesting.

  3. I have yet to see this species in bloom, even though the leaves are a common sight in my winter hikes along the Ozark Trail. I think I'll bring a few surveyors flags to the 3 acres out back and see if I can find any leaves.

  4. Hi Ted. This is a hard bloom to see. It does a wonderful job of blending with the summer woodland floor. Good luck in your search.

  5. For those looking for this in Connecticut, there are hardly any in existence. Likewise for most of the northeast.

    I am shocked to see someone recently post (elsewhere) that their dad dug up some so they could plant it at home.

    This is how we lose the things we love.

  6. Anonymous - Sorry to hear of the scarcity of this fine orchid in Commecticut. I knew the range included that part of the country, but didn't know they were so uncommon there.