Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) is a parasitic member of the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae). It has no chlorophyll and instead derives its nutrition from fungi which in turn are parasites on the roots of living plants.
A native perennial, spotted coralroot is found throughout most of North America including Alaska except the lower Mississippi River States and Florida. Its habitat is rich humus in moist to fairly dry coniferous or mixed forests from sea level to about 9,000 feet.
A hard mass of rhizomes forms the “root” of spotted coralroot. One to many yellowish, reddish or brownish purple scapes (stalks) arise from the rhizome mass and terminate in the inflorescence, a loose raceme (unbranched blooming from the bottom up) of 5 to 30 bilaterally symmetrical flowers. The flowers are the same color as the scape. Each flower has three sepals and three petals. The three sepals and two of the lanceolate petals spread sideways and upward while the third petal is a white lip with two small lobes with small scallops along the edge. This lip is bent downward and is spotted with purple. The stamens are united with the style and stigma to form a complex, light yellow structure speckled with purple called a column. The column is attached to the top of the ovary. The leaves are reduced to a few scales or sheaths on the scape.
Occasionally completely yellow “albino” plants occur that contain no anthocyanins.
Spotted coralroot fruits are three-chambered, red, pendant capsules.
There are three C maculata subspecies: one has a lance-shaped white lip with purple spots (ssp maculata), in the second the white lip has no purple spots (ssp mertensiana) and in the third the white lip with purple spots flares or widens near the tip (ssp occidentalis). I believe these are ssp maculata.
The genus, Corallorhiza, means “coral-like root” and the species, maculata is Latin for “spotted”. Another common name for ssp maculata is summer coralroot.
Indigenous people used a tea made from dried spotted coralroot scapes to treat colds, pneumonia and skin irritations.
The spotted coralroot plants and flowers were photographed in May and June along the PSEA Trail at McArthur Burney Falls State Park (Shasta County CA) or along the Old Growth Trail at Oregon Caves National Monument. In June the fruits were found along the Falls Loop Trail, again at Burney Falls.
These lines are from the poem about spotted coralroot titled “On Going Unnoticed” written by the American poet, Robert Frost:
. . . Less than the coral-root you know/That is content with the daylight low/It has no leaves all of its own/Whose spotted flowers hang meanly down. . .