We were walking in the Lakes last weekend near Ambleside and took a footpath leading up to Rydal Mount for the second time. This time I was more botanically focussed as we planned an easier stroll to compensate for the previous days strenuous mountain challenge of the ‘Fairfield round’. I noticed from some distance under some trees by a stream what initially looked like old dried bracken stems. But something encouraged me to go over and take a closer look. I was glad that I did, because it was indeed a collection of the parasitic Toothworts (Lathraea squamaria), closely related to the broomrapes. Quite the most ugly and beautiful plants I have seen, emerging from leaf litter like gigantic stout and anaemic caterpillars. I assume its name is derived from the white tooth-like leaves. It is less commonly known as Corpse Flower, maybe due to its deathly pallor or because in the past it was believed to feed off buried bodies – the latter is indeed not too far from the truth as it does tap the roots of their host plant, mainly Hazel and Elm (Rose, 2006), drawing off nutritious high sugar carbohydrates with pad –like suckers. The paleness is due to it having no chlorophyll as it has no need to photosynthesise.
Underground it would appear no less curious, with an extensive network of stems with white fleshy leaves, no longer light dependent – according to Studnika (1981) these much reduced leaves have cavities lined with enzyme-synthesising glands that they may use to repel or absorb small soil organisms - This physiological ability is similar to the mechanism of some carnivorous plants, but appears poorly understood. However Studnika (1981) goes on to suggest an alternative explanation, that “the main work of the glands is to eliminate surplus water....this is essential to enable the plant to absorb constantly new supplies of nutrition...in most plants water is evaporated from the stomata, but plants growing in a very damp atmosphere often eliminate water in drops by means of glands like the Toothwort.”
It would appear that this plant is worthy of further research.
Rose,F (2006) The Wild Flower Key – How to identify wild flowers trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. London: Penguin Books Ltd
Studnika, M (1981) The problem of carnivory in the Common Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria). Carnivorous Plant Newsletter [http://www.carnivorousplants.org/cpn/articles/CPNv11n1p17_20.pdf]