Lathraea clandestina (Purple toothwort) For KindaSquare

A cluster of Purple toothwort growing at ground level

When I first noticed these weird flowers in Sunnyhurst Wood, I couldn’t fathom what kind of plant I was seeing. In places, they grew among leaves, but these were leaves of other plants. Where they were alone, it was clear that the flowers were leafless.

Lathraea clandestina (purple toothwort)
Lathraea clandestina

Had wisteria somehow been buried alive with only the flowers making their way to the surface? I briefly considered the possibility with the wildness that comes from knowing something cannot be true, but not being able to think of a better alternative.

The plant was a little creepy – certainly nothing I’d seen before. I made a note of the spot so I could check up on its progress during the year, assuming leaves would follow, but nothing happened, so far as I could see. As the season progressed, other plants sprang up until I could no longer find the place.

Parasitic plant with purple flowers
Wisteria-like flowers came direct from little nodules on the surface of the soil

I was eager to find out if they would reappear. By April, these strange little flowers were in full swing again. They had no stalks. Small purple spheres topped with pale crosses peeped out from the earth. The crosses gradually parted to allow purple flowers out.

It took me some time to find out what kind of plant this is. In the end someone saw me gazing at the stalkless purple flowers on the ground in wonderment. He did not know their name, but explained that the plant grew on the roots of trees. He had noticed a similar one with a yellowish flower in another part of the wood a few years ago.

Given that clue, my sweetheart put a name to it. Lathraea clandestina is parasitic – the plant version of a vampire, to quote the RHS. Having no green parts, which means no chlorophyll, it can’t make its own food from sunlight. Instead its suckers latch onto the roots of another plant (ideally a poplar, hazel, willow or alder) to extract the energy and water it needs to survive.

For almost all year the plant lives below the soil, only emerging in spring to flower, be pollinated by early bees and set seed. The folk name is purple toothwort, though to me the flowers are more like claws.

I was surprised to find you can buy this eerie woodland plant online. The planting instructions are kinda different. You’ll need to take an axe to the base of a suitable tree and press the plants on the wound, then to be prepared for flowers to pop up a couple of years later, often some distance from where it was planted.

Shared for KindaSquare.

40 Replies to “Lathraea clandestina (Purple toothwort) For KindaSquare”

  1. Apparently there is toothwort in the woodland at Skipton. Last year there was an organized woodland flower walk in the spring , and toothwort was one of the flowers that appear there apparently. I would love to see some.

  2. This is so interesting. Thank you for your diligence over the past couple of years in tracking its growth and finding name and information about it. It is spooky, other-worldish.

    1. I can’t see the tree really liking it, although I do believe we have a lot to know about trees. Perhaps there is something reciprocal about it.

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