The word “parasite” usually conjures up thoughts of larvae emerging from dead spiders or worms spending time in our organs. But plants can be parasites, too! Ever seen a plant that has not a hint of green on it? That’s your first clue that it might be a parasite. Plants usually rely on the green chlorophyll in their leaves to facilitate photosynthesis so they can produce their own nutrients, so when there’s nothing green on a plant, one can guess that the plant has to get its food elsewhere.
On a recent hike, I came across two different species of parasitic plants and they were both orchids! Members of the orchid family are quite rare to begin with, not to mention the parasitic members of the orchid family. They were both in the genus Corallorhiza, the coralroot orchids. All members of this genus live only in North America except for one species that is circumboreal.
The first species I saw was the spotted coralroot orchid, Corallorhiza maculata.
This species parasitizes the mycelium of Russula fungi in the soil instead of photosynthesizing!
The next species I saw was striped coralroot orchid, Corallorhiza striata.
This one also parasitizes the mycelium of fungi in the soil, but apparently it is not quite as picky about the family of fungi it parasitizes as the spotted coralroot orchid is.
Most orchids have symbiotic relationships with fungi in the soil, which is why it is usually impossible to successfully transplant orchids into different soil. They will die without the nutrients they can get from the specific soil in which they grow.