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U.S. Forest Service

About Coralroot Orchids

Coralroot orchids are in the genus Corallorhiza in the orchid family Orchidaceae. The name Corallorhiza comes from the Greek korallion “coral” and rhiza “root’ referring to the coral-like appearance of the underground branched rhizomes.

Corallorhiza wisteriana roots with fungus. Corallorhiza wisteriana roots with fungus. Photo by Jyotsna Sharma.

Corallorhiza trifida var. verna rhizome. Corallorhiza trifida var. verna rhizome. Specimen from near Lachute, Qu├ębec, Canada. June 6th, 2005. Photo by Roger Lature.

There are 12 species of Corallorhiza known to occur throughout temperate forests in North and Central America. The center of diversity and distribution of these orchids is located in Mexico. Corallorhiza trifida is the lone species occurring in Europe and Asia with a circum temperate / boreal distribution. Seven species occur in the United States and all seven species are known to occur on National Forest System lands. The recently discovered Corallorhiza bentleyi occurs on the West Virginia and Virginia border and has been discovered on both the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests.

The Corallorhiza orchids of North America are hardy terrestrial plants that occur in wet to dry soils in deciduous, coniferous, or mixed forests. Coralroots develop intimate relationships with ectomycorrhizal fungi in the soil. One species, the Spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata), is known to have at least six distinct genotypes, each of which is associated with a different fungus.

Corallorhiza wisteriana roots with fungus. Corallorhiza bentleyi. Photo by David McAdoo.

Corallorhiza maculata Corallorhiza maculata. Photo by Bill Clark.

Coralroot orchids flower in spring, summer, or fall. They may occur as single specimens or small colonies of few to many stems. The reproductive biology of most coralroot orchids is poorly known, however they are thought to be pollinated by mosquitoes, wasps, and gnats. They produce millions of powdery seeds that must land on the appropriate soil-fungus matrix in order for new plants to germinate. Established coralroot orchids generally “disappear” the year after flowering, remaining beneath the soil surface for several years at a time. Generally, though, other individuals or colonies of coralroot orchid emerge from underground to flower within the same vicinity in the same habitat each year.

Corallorhiza wisteriana roots with fungus. Corallorhiza maculata habitat. Photo by Diane Peirce.

Corallorhiza trifida var. verna rhizome. Corallorhiza mertensiana habitat. Photo by Tom Nelson.

Look, Don't Take

As with all orchids, illegal collection, attempts at transplantation, and loss of habitat have reduced their numbers. As with many of genera of orchids, coralroot orchids have special requirements that make them extremely difficult to cultivate, thus they will not survive transplantation from the wild. For these reasons, it is illegal to dig or pick orchids on National Forest System lands.

Subtle Beauty…