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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where the species may be found. Corallorhiza trifida range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Corallorhiza trifida habitat Notice the sheaths clasping to the scapes toward the bottom third of each scape in this image of a population of early coralroot orchid. These sheaths are highly reduced bracts. Image with permission by Mark Larocque.

A field of Indian Paintbrush (Corallorhiza trifida) flower head. Note that the three sepals are adjacent to one another and recurved over the column and the two lateral petals are recurved over the lip (modified third petal). In taxonomy, this shape of the sepals and petals is called ‘conivent’. Image with permission by Tom Nelson.

Corallorhiza trifida closeup This image is a newly discovered color form found Manitoba, Canada. Note the rusty brown coloration of the petals and sepals and the purple spots on the lip. Image with permission by Lome Heshka.

Early Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida)

By Larry Stritch

The early coral-root orchid is an herbaceous, perennial wildflower with a broad distribution across Canada and the northern United states into Alaska, south into the central northern Rocky Mountains with several glacial relictual populations to the south. Early coral-root orchid has a circum-boreal distribution and is the only member of the genus Corallorhiza to occur in Eurasia. The species occurs in a broad array of coniferous to deciduous habitats in humus rich soils.

Corallorhiza trifida (Corallorhiza: corallion - coral and rhiza: root: coral-root; and, trifida - 3 -parted) refers to the underground stems, rhizomes, appearing like an ocean coral and the individual flowers having 3-lobed lip. Corallorhiza wisteriana attains a height of 8 to 35 centimeters.

Early coral-root occurs occasionally as a single aboveground flowering scape or as several scapes from a clone. The yellow-green to green scape emerges from a small, flattish, coral-shaped rhizome. The leaves are reduced to sheaths surrounding a simple scape (stalk of the inflorescence), yellow-green to green. The inflorescence is a lax to dense raceme of few to numerous flowers. Flowers are fully open and spreading. The flowers are generally yellow-green, the sepals are occasionally brownish-purple, with the petals commonly spotted with purple, the lip is generally white, occasionally purple-spotted. Corallorhiza trifida flowers from spring to midsummer. The fruit is a capsule.

Taxonomic note: Fernald in Gray’s Manual 8th ed. treated the yellow-green, spotless, early coral-root as Corallorhiza trifida var. verna. Magrath and Freudenstein in the Flora of North America placed this taxon in synonymy with Corallorhiza trifida.

Special note: Yellow-green to green color variants of Corallorhiza wisteriana, C. odontorhiza and C. maculata are occasionally misidentified as Corallorhiza trifida where their ranges overlap.

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