The Weird and Wonderful Toothwort

Common Toothwort in the Spring.
Common Toothwort in the Spring.

Who knew such a weird plant grew in the Avon woods? It’s a Toothwort. We originally thought it was a different parasitic plant, the Birds Nest Orchid that grows down the road at Browns Folly. Who knows, maybe the BNO is also out there somewhere waiting for us to find it?

The Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria to its more educated friends) is parasitic and has no green leaves or stems relying totally on its host for its food source.The growth goes on below the soil surface away from light and unnoticed by passers by. Toothwort’s rootstock’s branches have sucking nodules (haustoria) between the branches which attach early in the spring to the host plant’s rootstock. Only when it is has gained enough energy reserves does it produce flower spikes which appear in Spring. The seeds develop quickly and fall to the ground. They only sprout in the vicinity of a suitable host. The aerial shoots wither by summer and in autumn the underground haustoria wither too and the plant rests. Toothwort is so highly adapted to life underground that it is able to flower and produce seeds without breaking the surface.

It is normally found growing on hazel and willow. Since we are 2/3 hazel coppice it shouldn’t be a complete surprise but it is an ‘indicator species’ that shows Melick really is a piece of old woodland.  I thought it would be rare since I’ve never seen it (some kind of availability heuristic at work here?) but the relevant UK Red Data Book categorises it as being ‘LC’. LC means of least concern, which to my mind is an insult. It may be LC to them but its not to us. A stiffly worded letter to the editor may be necessary…..

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