Cranefly Orchid

Tipularia discolor (Pursh) Nutt.

Tipularia discolor flowers
John Heidecker

Monocotyledoneae (Monocots)
Orchidaceae (Orchid Family)
State Protection
Listed as Endangered by New York State: in imminent danger of extirpation in New York. For animals, taking, importation, transportation, or possession is prohibited, except under license or permit. For plants, removal or damage without the consent of the landowner is prohibited.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Critically Imperiled in New York - Especially vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to extreme rarity or other factors; typically 5 or fewer populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, very few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or very steep declines.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Apparently or Demonstrably Secure globally - Uncommon to common in the world, but not rare; usually widespread, but may be rare in some parts of its range; possibly some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors. More information is needed to assign either G4 or G5.


Did you know?

The leaves are green on top and purple on the bottom, giving this orchid its species name which means two colors (Fernald 1950). Many hours have been spent looking for an old record of this orchid in the woods near Montauk Point but it has never been rediscovered.

State Ranking Justification

There is one small existing occurrence of about 50-100 plants. It is subject to some direct disturbance from visitors to the park where it occurs. There are three populations from 1878 and the early 1900s that need to be resurveyed to see if they still exist. Four additional populations from New York City are now extirpated because their habitat has been destroyed.

Short-term Trends

The short-term trend appears to be stable, although the population numbers fluctuate from year to year.

Long-term Trends

S the long-term trend is strongly negative. even populations were known in the past but only one population remains. Additional surveys are needed in a few areas but finding more plants is unlikely.

Conservation and Management


The failure to maintain sufficient woodland buffer around the plants and prevent direct disturbance is a threat.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Maintain a natural buffer around the population and restrict direct access to the plants by rerouting trails away from the area they occupy.

Research Needs

More detailed information on the habitat preference of this species is needed because the existing population occurs in a seemingly common forest type.



The plants are located in a mesic, rich (apparently acid) woods with oak, beech and maple that is quite swampy with a shrubby to open understory. The plants are in leaf litter. A historical record grew in wet woods with laurel and holly (New York Natural Heritage Program 2012). Rich damp woods (Gleason and Cronquist 1991).

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Red maple-hardwood swamp (guide)
    A hardwood swamp that occurs in poorly drained depressions, usually on inorganic soils. Red maple is usually the most abundant canopy tree, but it can also be codominant with white, green, or black ash; white or slippery elm; yellow birch; and swamp white oak.

Associated Species

  • Acer rubrum
  • Chimaphila umbellata (pipsissewa)
  • Epifagus virginiana (beech-drops)
  • Fagus grandifolia (American beech)
  • Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel)
  • Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)
  • Viburnum acerifolium (maple-leaved viburnum)


New York State Distribution

This orchid is currently known only from Suffolk County, Long Island. There are historical records from Staten Island, Manhattan, and Monroe County. There are also old unconfirmed reports from Onondaga County.

Global Distribution

This is common in the Southern States from East Texas northeast through the Virginias and North Carolina. There are scattered populations north into Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan and also up the East Coast from New Jersey and Pennsylvania to eastern Massachusetts. It is mostly absent from eastern Georgia and the lower peninsula of Florida.

Identification Comments

General Description

Cranefly orchid flowers are produced in midsummer and grow on a very slender stem that is 2-5 dm tall. The inflorescence is a spike of many drooping flowers, then fruits, 1-2 decimeters long. The narrow sepals and lateral petals are 4-8 mm long and greenish-purple with purple veins. The lip is pale purple and translucent, 4-8 mm long with basal lobes that are nearly semicircular with ragged edges. The long lobe of the lip is linear and arched forward with the tip facing out. The margins are rolled under. The whitish spur is 15-22 mm long and the column 3-4 mm long. A single leaf is produced at ground level in the fall and persists through the winter into the early spring. It is wide-elliptic in shape, 5-10 cm long and 2.5-7 cm wide, with a 5 cm long petiole. It is somewhat pleated along the veins and greenish on top and shiny purple below.

Identifying Characteristics

Distinguishing characteristics: easiest to identify from solitary winter leaf that vaguely resembles a Plantago leaf, but is thin, wrinkled, with some purple markings on top, underside of leaf completely pale purple, disappearing before or soon after flowering; flowers with a distinct slender and elongate spur, spur about 2 cm long, twice as long as ovary; anther quickly shriveling; capsules slender, reflexed. Best life stage for ID: in leaf or in flower. Characteristics needed to ID: winter leaf or summer flower.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

The plan can be identified with winter leaves or with summer flowers.

Similar Species

Calypso and Puttyroot orchids also have winter leaves which are somewhat pleated and purple below but their ranges are north of Long Island and do not overlap. No other orchid has flowers similar to cranefly orchid.

Best Time to See

Flowers mid-July through August, fruits persist to early October.

  • Vegetative
  • Flowering
  • Fruiting

The time of year you would expect to find Cranefly Orchid vegetative, flowering, and fruiting in New York.

Cranefly Orchid Images


Cranefly Orchid
Tipularia discolor (Pursh) Nutt.

  • Kingdom Plantae
    • Phylum Anthophyta
      • Class Monocotyledoneae (Monocots)
        • Order Orchidales
          • Family Orchidaceae (Orchid Family)


  • Tipularia unifolia (Muhl.) BSP. [a nomen nudum.]

Additional Resources

Best Identification Reference

Flora of North America Editorial Committee. 2002. Flora of North America, North of Mexico. Volume 26. Magnoliophyta: Liliidae: Liliales and Orchidales. Oxford University Press, New York. 723 pp.

Other References

Clemants, Steven and Carol Gracie. 2006. Wildflowers in the Field and Forest. A Field Guide to the Northeastern United States. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 445 pp.

Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray's manual of botany. 8th edition. D. Van Nostrand, New York. 1632 pp.

Gleason, Henry A. and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York. 910 pp.

Holmgren, Noel. 1998. The Illustrated Companion to Gleason and Cronquist's Manual. Illustrations of the Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York.

Mitchell, Richard S. and Gordon C. Tucker. 1997. Revised Checklist of New York State Plants. Contributions to a Flora of New York State. Checklist IV. Bulletin No. 490. New York State Museum. Albany, NY. 400 pp.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2010. Biotics database. New York Natural Heritage Program. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Newcomb, Lawrence. 1977. Newcomb's Wildflower Guide: An Ingenious New Key System for Quick, Positive Field Identification of the Wildflowers, Flowering Shrubs, and Vines of Northeastern and North-Central North America. Little, Brown and Company. Boston.

Weldy, T. and D. Werier. 2010. New York flora atlas. [S.M. Landry, K.N. Campbell, and L.D. Mabe (original application development), Florida Center for Community Design and Research University of South Florida]. New York Flora Association, Albany, New York

Zaremba, Robert E. 1991. Corrections to phenology list of April 9, 1991.


About This Guide

This guide was authored by: Stephen M. Young

Information for this guide was last updated on: August 28, 2019

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Tipularia discolor. Available from: Accessed April 16, 2024.