The tiniest triffid in Cumbria

Coralroot orchid

The Cumbrian sun beat down on Sandscale Haws at Barrow-in-Furness. The sky was so clear that we could see the Isle of Man, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Pillar, Coniston Old Man outlined against the blue.
I had come to see the Coralroot orchid Corallorhiza trifida – now don’t go thinking this is a monster plant – the trifida refers to a three lobed lip (scarcely visible) on a plant which is small, green and hides under bushes of creeping willow. It is found only on a few select dune slacks in a vast reserve of near-identical dune slacks. It only grows in a spot which is not too wet and not too dry, not too bare and not too overgrown. Fortunately it was a guided walk with a very knowledgeable National Trust guide, so I didn’t have to search for it myself.

Sandscale Haws

The Coralroot needs to form a parasitic mycorrhizal relationship with a fungus which is also associated with the roots of the Creeping willow Salix repens. The willow is doing all the work here, the orchid has a tiny amount of chlorophyll in its pale yellowish green stem, but it has no leaves and it’s very much a one way relationship.
It is very choosy about where it lives and is classified as Nationally Scarce, but in spite of that it is found in 30-40 site in the north of the UK and also all over the northern hemisphere, North America, Scandinavia, northern Europe and a few spots in Asia. Climate change may make it retreat further north in time.

Coralroot orchid

It usually self-pollinates, so it is not dependant on any insect partners and it also spreads slowly from it underground coral-shaped rhizome. I find this hard to picture as coral comes in so many different forms and I wasn’t allowed to dig up a plant to find out! Harrap and Harrap say it is a ‘much branched mass of cream-coloured fleshy coral-like knobs’.

Sandscale Haws is also the site of another fussy rarity, with a Goldilocks complex; the Natterjack toad. They like a pool which is not too shallow and not too deep. Too shallow and it dries up too soon, too deep and it is full of predators. We found spawn and plenty of tadpoles so the next fussy generation is assured.