Spotted Coralroot Orchid

By Skip Via
skip@westvalleynaturalists.org

One of the less common—and certainly one of the most unusual—flowering plants you might encounter in the valley is the spotted coralroot orchid. At first glance it may appear to be dead. It has no leaves, and it can be a deep brown color. But look closely and you’ll find an exceptionally beautiful orchid.

The spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) looks the way it does because it has no chlorophyll, and therefore no need for leaves. It survives essentially as a parasite utilizing a process called myco-heterotrophy. The root stalks (rhizomes) of the coralroot snake around underground and essentially steal nutrients from a certain type of fungus (mycorrhiza fungus) that colonizes the coralroot’s root system. In many plants, this fungus derives some nutrition from the plant it colonizes, resulting in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship, but in the case of the spotted coralroot the exchange is one way only. The coralroot gets the nutrients and the fungus gets nothing.

One advantage that having no chlorophyll provides is the ability to thrive in deep shade. It’s common to find spotted coralroot in the deep woods, especially around nurse logs and other spots where fungi might thrive. But you’ll also find them on sunny slopes if the conditions for growth are right.

The flowers of the spotted coralroot are small but intricate and beautiful. After all, it’s an orchid.

Because of spotted coralroot’s myco-heterotrophy growing needs, it cannot be cultivated. It should be observed but never picked or disturbed in any way. Count yourself luck to find one, take some photos, and leave them alone.

For more on local orchids, see Calpyso Orchids.

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