JUST ONE: Coralroots

1. Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata).
2. A group of Spotted coralroots.

Hidden in plain sight, modest and peculiar, demanding an effortful eye,

distinct from their neighbors,

oddly colored, without leaves,

they appear irregularly – maybe this year,

maybe next. Eccentrically nourished,

they hide underground anchors

exquisitely attuned

to a vast network

of fungi.

Rootless, alone or

tightly clustered,

they reward inspection with sweet symmetry.

When I insinuate

the black box between us –

this awkward human with legs sprawled across the forest floor,

neck crooked, eyes squinting, fingers tense –

a photo is made, and then

I watch the bright screen beam

patterns and colors

to rival my dreams.

3. A Spotted coralroot plant without spots on the white lower petal (also called a lip or labellum). These are sometimes called Ozette’s coralroot, after the indigenous people who first lived in the area in Washington where it was discovered in 1967.

4. Spotted coralroot growing through a Bracken fern frond.
5. Ozette’s coralroot in my fingers. Officially this is a variation called Spotted coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata var. maculata.

Coralroots are in bloom and I’m excited about them so this “Just One” entry is actually about two plants, both in the coralroot family. Small, slender, and unassuming, coralroots can be hard to see in the leaf and twig litter that accumulates under the trees. From above, they look like odd-colored spikes, hardly worth a second glance. But bend way down, squint your eyes, peer at a single flower, and you’ll find a masterpiece of design. If it reminds you of a corsage that makes sense – coralroots are orchids.

On the last day of May, I went to a local park to see if the orange Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) were blooming yet. There’s only one place on the island I can depend on to see Tiger lilies and I didn’t want to miss them but as they say in the Pacific Northwest, no worries – the lily stems were all topped by small, nodding buds. It would be weeks before the flowers opened.

I didn’t expect any botanical surprises that day but just after I stepped onto the trail, a flash of magenta caught my eye. I came to an abrupt halt. What was that? The color didn’t compute in my mind – I didn’t remember any magenta plants in that patch of woods. Pink flowers, yes, but this was a dark, almost purple shade of pink. One spindly, magenta stalk rose from the detritus of last winter’s gray-brown twigs and this spring’s green leaves. I knew immediately that the little flower must be something interesting.

Bending down, I found a delicate orchid. It looked like some coralroot plants I’d seen there in the past but it was the wrong color and the flowers seemed different. I quickly made photographs – a few closeups and a few of the whole plant – to help me identify it after I got home.

6. Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana).
7. Pacific coralroot.

Excited about the new find, I looked for more and located two plants. Each one was just a small, asparagus-like stalk rising from the duff but unlike asparagus, they were deep reddish-purple. I sat down in a tangle of branches and old leaves, careful not to crush anything living, and photographed the stalks with their tightly closed buds. It was good to know there would be more of these little treasures blooming soon.

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The mystery plant reminded me of Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), which was nowhere to be seen, even though I photographed it in that area in each of the last three years. It was as if an imposter had arrived and stolen the scene.

When I got home it didn’t take long to identify the new flower as Pacific coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana). Surprised that two Coralroots grow on Fidalgo Island, I looked for records of Pacific coralroot on the iNaturalist and Burke Herbarium websites. The Burke had two, dated 1952 and 1968, from other locations on the island. iNaturalist had three observations, all from the same place in the woods where I saw them. One is dated 2017, two are from 2020, and now that I’ve added my photos there’s a record for 2022.

By this time I was burning with curiosity – where else near my home could Pacific coralroot be found? Are there more kinds of Coralroots near here? The answers were easy to find on iNaturalist, where the map of Pacific coralroot observations showed a cluster of sightings on Whidbey Island (just to our south) in a protected forest where old-growth Douglas firs and Western hemlocks thrive. Obsessed with my new find, I twisted Joe’s arm, and the very next day we were marching through the forest on Whidbey Island in search of Pacific coralroot. We weren’t disappointed – there were dozens and dozens of them! Even more exciting, a number of the plants were pale and yellowish instead of intense pink.

9. Pacific coralroot, yellow and pink forms.
10.

I had questions about these plants that I’ll write about here, but if there are too many details here for your taste, no problem. Enjoy the photographs!

Why do coralroots have such odd colors? Did you notice that they don’t have leaves? In fact, there aren’t any green parts at all. Coralroots lost their leaves and chlorophyll over evolutionary time. You may remember that chlorophyll is the compound that helps plants get energy from the sun and gives them their green color. So how do these plants live if they can’t photosynthesize? They form relationships with fungi in the soil, fungi that also have connections to the trees towering overhead. Those trees are busy photosynthesizing – so coralroots don’t have to! This is called mycorrhizal symbiosis. While I was photographing the diminutive orchids, complex transactions among coralroots, fungi, and trees were occurring continuously out of sight, right under my feet, making beautiful flowers like these possible:

11. A single Pacific coralroot flower.
12. A single Spotted coralroot flower in black and white.

About 400 different species of plants can’t photosynthesize and depend on fungi for nourishment; many are orchids. Some orchids depend on fungi only for germination but coralroots are dependent on fungi for germination and growth. They have lost their true roots and instead are anchored into the soil by a rhizome, essentially a horizontal, nubby stem. The nubs on the rhizome can resemble short branches of coral, which is why they’re called coralroots. The rhizomes are connected to mycorrhizal fungi that have symbiotic relationships with other plants, like Douglas fir trees. The requirement for particular fungi to be present in the soil means that humans have not been able to cultivate coralroots (as far as I know). Being dependent on fungal networks in the soil means that disturbances like road construction, which probably destroy mycorrhizal fungi, would restrict the spread of coralroots. You won’t find them invading roadside lots and lawns the way dandelions do!

The unusual arrangement coralroots have with fungi starts with the seeds, which are tiny and numerous, almost like clouds of dust. That’s typical for the orchid family, one of the largest plant families, with 25,000 – 35,000 species. Orchid seeds lack stores of energy (food) and can’t germinate on their own so they rely on fungi to get a start in life. If the particular fungus an orchid requires doesn’t live where the windblown seeds land, too bad, there will be no orchid. That’s probably why orchids produce prodigious amounts of seeds.

*

*

Ectomycorrhizal (ektos – outside, mykes – fungus, rhiza – root) relationships are being studied by people like Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology in British Columbia who has written extensively about the ways plants communicate below the ground. Her book, ‘Finding the Mother Tree’ details the implications of her ground-breaking research exploring the surprising forces that bind trees and plants together in complex networks. Actually, scientists have known that fungal networks connect to tree roots for years. It was a nineteenth-century German botanist, Albert Bernard Frank, who first recognized and wrote about fungus/plant relationships and coined the word “mycorrhiza.” Frank also coined the term, “symbiosis” back in 1877. But there is still much to learn about fungal connections to plants.

How exactly the complex relationship among coralroots, mycorrhizal fungi, and trees benefits each partner is a question that, if I understand correctly, scientists are asking and answering bit by bit, as research continues. We know that fungi continuously “inhale” oxygen and “exhale” carbon dioxide, an ability that coralroots exploit to receive carbon. The fungi coralroots depend on are essentially intricate networks of rootlike hyphae that branch over and over again, exploring the soil for nutrients and forming connections with the fine tips of tree roots and orchid rhizomes. Minerals that fungi get from the trees they’re connected to can be passed to coralroots, too.

These fascinating plants are a small genus of only ten species, all but one found in North America. The coralroot that grows outside North America is C. trifida, sometimes called Early or Northern coralroot. It occurs across the northern hemisphere in Europe, Russia, India, China, Korea, Canada, and the US. This small, yellowish-green orchid has some chlorophyll but primarily relies on fungi that are often connected to birch or alder trees. The plant I found in the park, Pacific coralroot, is an uncommon orchid found mainly in shaded, coniferous forests in southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and northern California.

The most common coralroot in my area is Spotted coralroot, pictured above in #1 – #5 and #12. There were 35 observations of Spotted coralroot recorded on Fidalgo Island on iNaturalist the last time I looked (and iNaturalist has only been operating since 2008). I’ve seen it a number of times here but it’s not common. It seems odd that Pacific coralroot was growing in the same patch of woods where Spotted coralroot grew before. Maybe Spotted coralroot plants will appear there in a few weeks, who knows? Pacific coralroot was once considered a subspecies of Spotted coralroot so obviously, they share some characteristics, like habitat. But they do not share underground fungal networks – each relies on different kinds of fungi. Maybe the fungus that Pacific coralroot uses is in very good health this year and that enabled the coralroot’s rhizome, a lumpy storage organ that’s essentially an underground stem, to send up a flowering stalk. Perhaps Spotted coralroots are resting this year and I’ll have to wait until next year to see them again; I read that coralroot plants may rest several years under the soil. But that doesn’t explain why I saw Spotted coralroot three years in a row and Pacific coralroot this year. I have many questions!

14. Spotted coralroot, intentionally blurred by moving the camera.
15. Spotted coralroot from above, intentionally blurred by manually focusing.
16. Five years ago I noticed this small group of coralroots in a shaft of sunlight in the woods at Longmire, Mount Rainier.
17. A photo from July, 2012, the first time I saw coralroots. This is Pacific coralroot and after seeing that time in a park outside Seattle and once more on Mt. Rainier, I didn’t see it again until this spring. And frankly, if I didn’t have these photos I would not have known that I’ve seen Pacific coralroot before.
18.

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In my β€œJust One” series I explore native Pacific Northwest plants one at a time. Like other posts in the series, this one includes both personal impressions and factual information. Click “Just One” in the category list below to see more of these posts.

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47 comments

    • I hate to admit it but I haven’t read it yet – I will soon! It’s really nice to hear that this post added something to your enjoyment of the book. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

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  1. I realy enjoyed your post of the coralroot orchids. They look splendid ! My compliments for your pictures and it was nice to read so many details about this rare orchids. I hope they may survive for a long time on these spots as they did already for many years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Rudi, it’s so good to hear that you enjoyed the post. It was hard for me to write – so many complex details. Making scientific facts clear enough for anyone to understand isn’t easy. You are very, very good at doing that. Yes, let’s hope they survive a lot longer than we do. πŸ˜‰

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  2. Beauty! And another peek into the marvellous and incredible complexity of the manifestation of the oneness of being.

    πŸŸ₯🟧🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟧πŸŸ₯
    🟧🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟧
    🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨
    🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩
    🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟧🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦
    πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟧❀🟧🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ
    🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟧🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦
    🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩
    🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨
    🟧🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟧
    πŸŸ₯🟧🟨🟩🟦πŸŸͺ🟦🟩🟨🟧πŸŸ₯

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  3. Your post made me smile from start to finish; the smile increased with the ‘what is that?’ attention — and oh, you were so kind to allow us to walk with you, delve into the mysteries of discovering more – searching for more – cherishing the journey and uncovering more details! Carrrrramba! It was also amusing that you lasso’d Joe into expanding your search! Yay! Partners in research and admiration!

    iNaturalist is such a great site, not only for documenting the flora and fauna of the world, but also where others help decipher the mysteries and untangle the sometimes crossed bits of information.

    This post deserves a second read – and maybe a third! Of course the photos are Classic Lynn!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amiga, thank you! Joe is very patient. It’s interesting that he’s red-green colorblind and is very good at spotting things in the forest. I think I rely on the contrast between the greens and the pinks or reds of coralroots but it’s different with his eyes. Teamwork, right? πŸ˜‰
      iNaturalist has frustrated me at times when I haven’t been able to submit entries due to some bug but otherwise yes, what a resource!! What a difference compared to long ago when we relied on field guides and maybe even wrote letters to people to share information! I hope all’s well with you and once again, I’m sorry I have been absent. I’ll catch up soon.

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      • No apologies are ever needed. When we have the chance we are anywhere except focused on the www – and are instead focused on flora, fauna or anything that captures our eyes!
        Yes, Teamwork! It’s nice to witness things alone, but so very special with a kindred spirit!

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    • That’s cool that you appreciated the little aside, thanks for mentioning it! I struggled a long time with this one, trying to get the science understandable. I think I’ll go back to something easier next. πŸ˜‰

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  4. Wow, impressive post and beautiful pictures. These orchids seem to be a bit like alien living forms. They are so extraordinary and so totally different from the most we know. With some you wouldn’t even think of flowers, would you? Like you wrote, Asparagus-like πŸ™‚ Often they seem to have faces, which gets obvious in your black and white photo. Absolutely fascinating πŸ™‚ And what a great moment for you, to find them! I can see you still smiling πŸ™‚
    I didn’t know that orchids produce so many seeds and that it is a coincidence if they land in the right place. I read about the Mykhorizza / mycorrhizal and it is fascinating (again πŸ˜‰ how everything works. I have the feeling it is a big topic in science right now. I started to read a book about this, but didn’t finish it so far. The connections are really interesting. I don’t ask how long you wrote this. It was very interesting to read and I enjoyed your photos of the mysterious orchids very much!

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    • They do look a bit strange on the forest floor – and then when you read about them, they’re even more strange! It was fun to find so many growing in the forest on Whidbey Island – it’s a bigger forest with some very old, big trees.
      I figured you had read about mykhorizza (funny that the spelling is close but different). It’s complicated, isn’t it? I had difficulty pulling the information together, partly because there really isn’t a lot of information available about these coralroot plants. The hardest part was writing it in my own words and making it easy enough for anyone to understand without being too simple. It took a really long time – read, write a little, edit, start over, repeat, repeat, repeat. Thanks very much for your comment, that makes it worth the extra effort (but the next post will be less challenging!)

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      • I understand you so well! It really takes a lot of time, especially with such a complex (?) and complicated topic. But you did it really good. At first I thought it could be too difficult to read for me, but it was well written and understandable. So thank you for your effort πŸ™‚ I am waiting for your book about coralroot plants πŸ˜‰

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        • Thank you, Almuth. I’m always thinking about readers of the blog who have English as a second language so I’m glad it wasn’t too hard to understand. I keep asking myself, how can I make it clear and simple but not stupid? πŸ˜‰ And yes, either complex or complicated works in that sentence.
          Have a good evening!

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  5. Nature is really a place full of mysteries and beautiful details, as this post shows very well. I was unaware that many species of orchids were fed by this underground network of fungi. This post is a true sequence of curiosities for laymen like me and a curious botany lesson framed by magnificent details of these small orchids.
    I really enjoyed it and, for my part, I thank you for sharing that researcher spirit, the curiosity that runs in your veins and the constant desire to know more.
    I wish you an excellent weekend!🌞

    Liked by 2 people

    • If we have a sense of wonder and lots of curiosity, finding new plants or animals can lead to amazing things. I didn’t know much about orchids until these plants and another orchid that grows here inspired me to dig into anything I could find. “Researcher spirit” – that’s fun, Dulce! πŸ™‚ I wish you a wonderful weekend, too, and thank you for your comment.

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  6. What a beautiful, bizarre plant! And what a fantastic tribute by your detailed textand and splendid photos !
    I’ve never seen it before! So thanks for this great presentation!!
    All the best, Petra

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s nice to have the time to learn more about the strange and beautiful things I see. When I working all the time I couldn’t get as deeply into things like this. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I admire your fluency in English! πŸ˜‰

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  7. “to rival my dreams”

    Winning the competition is no problem for this delicate plant, it does it easily.Β  Dedicating a Just One post to this species is really appropriate.

    Β What immediately catches my eye with your first photo are the incredible colors: this yellow brown-orange and the dark magenta – no designer thinks of that!
    Β In the third picture, you’ve found that fine balance of sharpness and blurriness that I see as typical of many of your photos.Β  A pleasure.
    Β How delicate and tiny the orchid is becomes really clear in comparison with your finger, how many people will pass by this jewel without even noticing it?

    Β The second plant, the Pacific coralroot, has the color of its sister’s dots throughout, which probably makes it stand out more despite its tiny size.
    Β The yellowish variant of the Pacific Coralroot looks like a magic plant against the dark background in your picture no.10.
    Β I really like photos #16 and 17 because they give more context to the plant. There you take it out of the dream world that your photos create and make it more of a living being in our world.

    Β I always admire your research energy, if you are very interested in a plant, you will become an expert in no time.Β  And the best thing about it (for me): you take us with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m no expert but I AM curious. It’s a good thing Joe takes my obsessions in stride, too (what else can he do?). There’s no question that they are odd-looking plants and when you read about them, they’re even more intriguing. I told myself to be sure to include a photo with the flower in my hand and photos of the flowers in the forest, for the reasons you noticed.
      You’re right about Pacific coralroot’s pinker color – it does really stand out! I’m so glad I saw them at the right time. I’m glad iNaturalist exists, too – without that I wouldn’t have known to look for more Pacific coralroots near a certain trail in a certain forest. So cool! πŸ˜‰
      Thank you for spending time here, Ule, it means a lot. I hope the garden is serving up tasty treats for you both….

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      • Yes, it is good to have someone who shares our passions (and carries our photo backpackπŸ˜‰).
        The garden is just about to offer its first delicious herbs, spring onions, zucchini and raspberries which I’m harvesting in competition with the blackbirds.

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  8. What special and fascinating plants. I was guessing they were in the orchid family at the start. You have done a wonderful job in capturing them and providing such thorough information. I looked through a few times and 1, 2, 4, & 18 are my top favorites here! 18, the B&W has a wonderful feeling to it … very artsy!

    When we visited years ago we went to a woodsy botanical garden somewhere near you. I remember it being a real treat! If you told me the name I might recognize it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I am well aware that this isn’t to everyone’s taste so I appreciate your comment very much. It’s really hard to write about things like this!
      There aren’t any botanical gardens near here but “near” is relative, isn’t it? You must mean someplace north of Seattle. There’s a very woodsy botanical garden with mostly native plants called Kruckeberg Botanical Garden, just north of Seattle. Is that it? https://www.kruckeberg.org/
      Bellevue Botanical Garden is woodsy, too. It’s close to where I used to live, across the lake from Seattle. There are a few others around Seattle – all well over two hours from here, unfortunately.

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  9. This is a fine treatment of Coral Root in all its stages and glory, Lynn. I know they are around here somewhere but I’ve not found any to date. I really liked the creative silhouette shot of number 18. But it was nice seeing the various closeups and entirety of the flowers and plants.

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    • Steve, thank you! I’m glad that I tried #18 in black and white – removing the color worked there. As you know well, forest scenes can be complicated. I try to include context photos as well as close-ups for these “Just One” posts, thanks for noticing. πŸ™‚

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