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Coralroot Orchid

Corallorhiza trifida

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Plant Profile

Flowering Months:
Orchidaceae (Orchid)
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
30 centimetres tall
Bogs, sand dunes, scrub, waterside, woodland.

Green, 6 petals
The flowers appear in loose spikes of 3 to 10. They are yellowish-green with some brown and white. 1 stigma. 2 stamens. Self-pollinating.
A nodding, green, elliptical capsule, turning brown later. The seeds are tiny and dust-like.
Coralroot Orchids appear leafless but the leaves are sheath-like and alternate up the stems. Most commonly found in Alder and Willow woodland (or scrub) where it is wet. Coralroot Orchids are able to produce some chlorophyll but are mainly saprophytic and feed on the fungi surrounding its roots. Perennial.
Other Names:
Early Coralroot, Northern Coralroot, Yellow Coralroot.
Frequency (UK):

Other Information


Corallorhiza trifida, also known as the early coralroot, is a species of orchid native to North America. It is a herbaceous perennial plant that is typically found in woodlands and other shady areas. The plant has a single stem with a few leaves, and it produces clusters of small, pink or purple flowers in the spring. Corallorhiza trifida is often used in wildflower gardens, and it is considered to be a rare or endangered species in some areas.


Coralroot Orchid, scientifically known as Corallorhiza trifida, is a unique and fascinating species of orchid that can be found in North America. Unlike other orchids, the Coralroot Orchid does not rely on photosynthesis for its survival, as it lacks chlorophyll, the pigment that allows plants to produce energy from sunlight. Instead, this orchid derives its energy from a mutualistic relationship with fungi.

Appearance and Habitat

Coralroot Orchids are small, delicate plants that can reach a height of 10-30 cm. The stem is slender and reddish-brown in color, and the leaves are reduced to small scales that are arranged along the stem. The flowers are pink, yellow, or white and grow in a dense cluster at the top of the stem. Each flower is about 1 cm long, with a long spur at the back.

The Coralroot Orchid is a terrestrial orchid, which means that it grows in soil rather than on other plants like many other orchid species. They prefer to grow in shady, moist areas such as forests, woodlands, and bogs.


The Coralroot Orchid is pollinated by bees, flies, and butterflies. The insects are attracted to the flowers by their color and scent. As the insect feeds on the nectar at the base of the spur, it brushes against the stigma and deposits pollen on it. The pollen then travels down the stigma and fertilizes the ovary, which eventually produces seeds.

Mutualistic Relationship

As mentioned earlier, the Coralroot Orchid does not produce its own energy through photosynthesis. Instead, it relies on a mutualistic relationship with fungi. The fungi provide the plant with nutrients and water that it needs to grow and survive, while the plant provides the fungi with carbon compounds that it produces through photosynthesis.

The Coralroot Orchid is what is known as a mycoheterotroph, which means that it obtains all of its nutrients from fungi rather than from photosynthesis. This type of relationship is relatively rare in the plant world and is only found in a few other orchid species.


Despite being a fascinating and unique plant, Coralroot Orchids face several threats that endanger their survival. The destruction of their habitat due to logging, urbanization, and agricultural activities is the primary threat to this species. The Coralroot Orchid is also at risk of being over-collected due to its beauty and uniqueness.

Conservation Efforts

Efforts are underway to conserve the Coralroot Orchid and protect it from extinction. Several organizations are working to identify and protect critical habitats for this species, and measures are being taken to prevent over-collection. Additionally, some organizations are working to cultivate Coralroot Orchids in greenhouses and botanical gardens, which can help ensure their survival.

Ecology and Life Cycle

The Coralroot Orchid has a unique ecology and life cycle that is different from other orchid species. As a mycoheterotrophic plant, it relies on fungi for its survival, and it does not produce chlorophyll. The Coralroot Orchid germinates from tiny seeds that are dispersed by wind and insects. Once it finds a suitable location, it establishes a relationship with a specific fungus species. The fungus attaches to the Coralroot's roots and provides it with water, nutrients, and carbohydrates, while the Coralroot provides the fungus with carbon compounds. The plant blooms in late spring or early summer, and the flowers are pollinated by insects. After pollination, the plant produces a capsule that contains numerous tiny seeds that are dispersed by the wind or animals.

Distribution and Conservation Status

The Coralroot Orchid is native to North America and can be found from Alaska to California and from the Great Plains to the East Coast. The plant grows in a variety of habitats, including coniferous and deciduous forests, swamps, bogs, and grasslands. However, due to habitat destruction and over-collection, the Coralroot Orchid is listed as endangered or threatened in many states where it occurs. Conservation efforts are needed to protect this plant and its habitat, including the identification and protection of critical areas for the species, public education about its importance, and cultivation in botanical gardens.

Cultural Significance

The Coralroot Orchid has cultural significance for some Indigenous communities in North America. For example, the Tlingit people of Alaska call it the "ghost orchid" and believe it has medicinal properties. They use it to treat headaches, colds, and other ailments. The Cree people of Quebec call it "miwasin sipihtin" or "red water medicine" and use it to treat kidney problems. Additionally, some Native American tribes use the Coralroot Orchid in traditional ceremonies and as a symbol of beauty, harmony, and balance in nature.

Taxonomy and Naming

The Coralroot Orchid belongs to the family Orchidaceae and the genus Corallorhiza. There are several species in the Corallorhiza genus, including Corallorhiza trifida, which is the most common species found in North America. The name Corallorhiza comes from the Greek words "korallion," meaning coral, and "rhiza," meaning root. This name refers to the coral-like appearance of the plant's roots. The specific epithet "trifida" means "three-parted" and refers to the three-parted lip of the flower.

Interesting Facts

Here are some interesting facts about the Coralroot Orchid:

  • The Coralroot Orchid is sometimes called the "coralroot" or the "coralroot orchid" because of the coral-like appearance of its roots.
  • The Coralroot Orchid has a distinctive odor that resembles that of a mushroom or a decaying plant. This scent helps attract the insects that pollinate it.
  • The Coralroot Orchid is a relatively short-lived plant, with a lifespan of about 5-10 years.
  • The Coralroot Orchid is sometimes used as an ornamental plant, although it can be difficult to cultivate because of its unique ecology.
  • The Coralroot Orchid has been the subject of several scientific studies due to its unusual ecology and the unique relationship it has with fungi.

Final Thoughts

The Coralroot Orchid is a fascinating and unique plant that has captured the attention of scientists, botanists, and nature enthusiasts alike. Its unusual ecology, reliance on fungi, and cultural significance make it a special species that deserves protection and conservation efforts. By educating ourselves about the Coralroot Orchid and its importance, we can help ensure that this remarkable plant continues to thrive in its natural habitat for generations to come.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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