Island Park just keeps on giving whenever I go there. It’s one of those places where you can go again and again for years and not exhaust the possibility of discovery. Take, for instance, when I showed up at our cabin, opened the window to my bedroom and saw this:
Sunlight streaming through Lodgepole Pine and Fireweed to cast a spotlight on a large clump of Corallorhiza mertensiana, commonly called “Western coralroot” or “Merten’s coralroot.” It’s a terrestrial orchid which grows in conifer forest understories. They have no roots, just a rhizome that is branched like coral. It is a non photosynthetic, mycotrophic wildflower; they are parasitic plants, relying on a symbiotic fungus to pull nutrients from the surrounding trees and understory plants for its entire life as it has no chlorophyll & can’t photosynthesize sunlight into food. In fact, its seed cannot even germinate without this fungal host as it has no endoplasm or “food store.” It gets all its carbohydrates and minerals to germinate via its subterranean host.
The seeds of Corallorhizae are among the smallest in the world, with some measuring only two-tenths of a millimeter in diameter.
The area around my cabin was full of these, and I could spot plants wherever I went. It’s one of those western forest ephemerals you wish you could grow in a garden, like Pterospora andromeda (Pinedrops), but will never be able to. The funny thing is I’ve looked for these elsewhere in other years and wasn’t able to find any, which makes the discovery right outside of my cabin window all the more serendipitous.