Image By Atlas

Winter Native Surprise

by Yolanda Ciolli and Mike Trial

Plant photos courtesy of the authors

Many people shy away from winter walks because it’s cold, foliage is gone from most trees, and flowers are absent from the land. However, one thing to consider is the freedom from biting insects and oppressive heat, as well as the different perspective to enjoy the landscape—without even breaking a sweat.

We can use these seasonal comforts as inspiration to observe things overlooked or absent in the warm seasons. One native species to be on the lookout for is Aplectrum hyemale (also called putty root or Adam and Eve orchid). In fall and early winter, the leaf emerges and remains through the winter in rich soil in woodlands and along shaded flat areas along draws.

The leaf is quite stunning. Striped turquoise green and white, the smooth oblong leaf, 3-5 inches in length, often with a wine-colored underside, is sometimes found as a single leaf emerged from the corm, the plant’s root structure, and other times in colonies. When found after a snow, the area around them appears to be melted, as though they have their own furnace action radiating from within.

This native orchid is prevalent throughout much of Missouri and also found in our neighboring region. In central Missouri, the 2021 rainfall has exceeded 56 inches as of December 11th, and the Aplectrum seems to be having a great year. The leaf stands out and is easy to notice when walking at a slow pace.

Aplectum leaves in winter, December 6, 2021

It pays to remember where these leaves are on your winter walks, because in late spring, the leaf withers away, and a 4 to 8 inch raceme of delicate light yellow-green and wine colored blossoms emerge from the corm. They are unassuming flowers that are harder to find amongst the spring ground cover than the exposed leaves are in winter, but are sure to please when you find them.

Aplectum leaves in winter, December 6, 2021

Aplectum in flower, June 2020

References and additional information about this somewhat elusive woodland native can be found in Flora of Missouri by Julian Steyermark (University of Iowa Press, 1963) and the revised edition, Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri by George Yatskievych (Missouri Department of Conservation in cooperation with the Missouri Botanical Garden Press 1999), and many articles and images can be found online.