Coralroot Orchid: Beautiful & Unusual Parasitic Plant

photo by Guy Maguire

photo by Guy Maguire

Last spring during a volunteer work party at the McLane Point Preserve on Eld inlet, we came across an unusual and beautiful little flower, a Spotted coralroot orchid, or Corallorhiza maculata. I immediately wanted to learn more about this fascinating plant.

The Spotted coralroot orchid is a myco-heterotroph, which means essentially “gaining its nutrients from the roots of mushrooms.” The Northwest is home to over a dozen species of these types of plants. These small orchids and heath family plants are unique because they have lost all their chlorophyll, do not perform photosynthesis, and rely entirely on the roots of certain mushrooms for all their nutrients.

Contrary to popular belief, not all plants are green. In fact, these myco-heterotrophes come in a great variety of colors. Once upon a time they had leaves and were green like most plants, but over time evolved to lose their pigment as they developed associations with specific fungi species. Some of the more common myco-heterotrophes in this area are the Candystick (Allotropa virgata), Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculate), and Striped coralroot (Corallorhiza striata).

While ecologists have known for many years that more than 90% of plants associate with fungi, only recently have they learned that specific plant species quite literally act as parasites on these fungi, stealing their nutrients. This may seem like a negative, but the reality is these plants play an important role in the forest’s ecology. These fungi get their energy, in the form of sugars, from the trees around them and in turn provide the trees with nitrogen and other nutrients. The “parasitic” orchids take only a minute fraction of those nutrients for themselves. In turn, they occupy a unique niche and provide more diversity in the forest. These orchids also fill an important link in the forest ecosystem by providing nectar for many species of pollinating insects.

My research on this fascinating organism led me to think about what else have we may have yet to  discover. Looking deeper into the lives of these plants has illustrated how truly interconnected the forest is.

So the next time you are wandering the woods and in the mountains, keep your eyes peeled! The Northwest is home to a diversity and abundance of these strange, beautiful, perplexing little flowers.


Guy Maguire is Capitol Land Trust’s Restoration Projects Coordinator.

This article reprinted with permission from the Fall issue of the Capitol Land Trust newsletter.

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Posted in Nature Notes from the Steamboat Peninsula.