Spotted coral-root orchid (Corallorhiza maculata)

Spotted coral-root orchid

Top facts

  • The spotted coral-root orchid is named after the appearance of its twisted ‘coral-like’ root and the spotted pattern on its flowers.
  • The spotted coral-root orchid can be considered an underground species that is able to produce a flowering plant above ground.
  • The spotted coral-root orchid is widespread throughout North America, with three recognised varieties.
  • The spotted coral-root prefers healthy habitats of mixed and dry coniferous forests, with a good level of biodiversity.
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Spotted coral-root orchid fact file

Spotted coral-root orchid description

GenusCorallorhiza (1)

The spotted coral-root orchid (Corallorhiza maculata) is named for its appearance. The rhizome root is described as being ‘coral-like’, and the lip of the flower is usually covered in distinctive spots (3) (4). The genus Corallorhiza is derived from two Greek words, meaning ‘coral rhizome(3), and the species name maculata is from Latin, meaning ‘spotted’ (2) (3). There are two widely recognised varieties of the spotted coral-root orchid: Corallorhiza maculata variation maculata and Corallorhiza maculata variation occidentalis (2) (5) (6). There is a third variety, Corallorhiza maculata variationmexicana, which was recognised in 1997 (1) (7).

A leafless stem covered by small bracts, grows above ground to heights of between 15 and 55 centimetres (2) (4) (5). Each stem can produce as many as 50 flowers, with small, pointed, seed capsules present along the top third of the stem (2) (4).

The different varieties of C. maculata can be identified by differences in the size and shape of flower segments. C. maculata var. maculata has parallel or nearly parallel sides on the middle lobe of the lip, which is the middle petal that grows almost horizontally from the flower. In contrast, the middle lobe of the lip petal in both C. maculata var. occidentalis and C. maculata var. mexicana is broadly expanded (2) (4). In C. maculata var. occidentalis, spots cover the entire lip petal, while only the edges are spotted in C. maculata var. mexicana. (4)

There are as many as five defined colour forms of the spotted coral-root orchid, which can appear together within a local area (7). These range from the common rich, brown-red form to bright yellow, with the flowers usually the same colour as the stem (2) (3) (5) (7). The lip, though always white, varies in the level of spotting, from pure white with no spots to many spots all over the lip (2) (3) (6) (7).

Height: up to 55 cm (2)

Spotted coral-root orchid biology

The spotted coral-root is part of a genus of coral-root orchids that all have a similar underground branching rhizome. Each branch of the rhizome is capable of producing an individual flowering stem, but this does not occur every year, and there can be years when no stems are produced at all. It is unknown what stimulus determines whether or not the plant produces a stem, but it is not dormant when no stems are produced. The spotted coral-root orchid can be considered a subterranean plant that is able to produce a flowering plant above ground (5).

The spotted coral-root orchid is saprophytic, and gets the nutrients it requires from a supply of rotting vegetation and organic matter. It has no chlorophyll and therefore does not rely on sunlight to survive (3).

The spotted coral-root orchid can be in flower from mid-June to September depending on location and variety, with C. maculata var. occidentalis flowering about two weeks earlier than C. maculata var. maculata (2) (3) (5).

The spotted coral-root orchid is believed to be pollinated by small bees, but the fact that the flower shape differs between varieties indicates that it may have several different pollinators (2) (5).

The spotted coral-root orchid has been described as an ‘ectomycorrhizal epiparasite’ as a result of a study in 1997. It was found that the spotted coral-root orchid was dependent on a fungus that was, in turn, symbiotic with a host tree, but that the orchid provided nothing for the partnership (7).


Spotted coral-root orchid range

The spotted coral-root orchid is widespread throughout much of North America (3) (4) (7) (8).


Spotted coral-root orchid habitat

The spotted coral-root orchid inhabits mixed forests and dry coniferous forests (2) (7) (8). It shows some tolerance for varied growing conditions, but tends to occur in ecologically good sites (5) (7) (8). These sites can be in previously logged forests that have recovered to a sufficient level of biodiversity and canopy cover (5).

The spotted coral-root orchid is a saprophytic species, and favours areas with plenty of leaf litter and soil rich in organic content (3) (5) (7). The rhizome root is buried quite deeply into the soil, which may provide some protection against weather (5). Large colonies can occur as a result of vegetative propagation of the rhizome (7) (8).

The spotted coral-root orchid has been found at elevations between sea level and as high as 3,200 metres, but is usually found between 2,100 and 3,000 metres (7) (8).


Spotted coral-root orchid status

The spotted coral-root orchid has not yet been assessed by the IUCN.


Spotted coral-root orchid threats

In California, the spotted coral-root orchid is considered safe from threats due to its high abundance across a diverse range of habitats. Habitat is being lost continually from logging operations, but major populations are protected within State and National Parks, and wilderness areas (8).

It has been noted that forestry practises and land use is intensifying, and that very little forest in northern Minnesota is not under some kind of land management (5).


Spotted coral-root orchid conservation

There are no known conservation measures in place to specifically protect the spotted coral-root orchid.


Find out more

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Modified leaf at the base of a flower.
A group of green pigments found in photosynthetic organisms, such as most plants, algae and cyanobacteria.
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
To transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Animals that in the act of visiting a plant’s flowers transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
An underground, horizontal plant stem that produces roots and shoots.
Term applied to a plant or plant-like organism that absorbs nutrients from dead plant or animal matter.
Living underground, in caves or groundwater.
Describes a relationship in which two organisms form a close association. The term is now usually used only for associations that benefit both organisms (a mutualism).
In taxonomy, the science of classifying organisms, variety is a rank below species or subspecies. Members of a variety differ from others of the same species in relatively minor ways.
Vegetative propagation
Type of asexual reproduction (reproduction that does not involve the formation of sex cells) in which a new plant grows from part of another plant, rather than from seeds or spores. The resulting individual is genetically identical to the original plant.


  1. Integrated Taxonomic Information System (November, 2013)
  2. Smith, W.R. (2012)Native Orchids of Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  3. Ames, D., Bainard-Acheson, P., Heshka, L., Joyce, B., Neufeld, J., Reeves, R., Reimer, E. and Ward, I. (2005) Orchids of Manitoba: A Field Guide. Native Orchid Conservation Inc., Winnipeg.
  4. Coleman, R.A. (2002) The Wild Orchids of Arizona and New Mexico. Cornell University Press, New York.
  5. Liggio, J. and Liggio, A.O. (1999)Wild Orchids of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  6. Fowler, J.A. (2005) Wild Orchids of South Carolina: A Popular Natural History. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia.
  7. Correll, D.S. (1978) Native Orchids of North America: North of Mexico. Stanford University Press, California
  8. Coleman, R.A. (2002) The Wild Orchids of California. Cornell University Press, New York.

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Spotted coral-root orchid  
Spotted coral-root orchid

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