This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Dull brownish purple, about 1/2 in. high; 10 to 30 borne in a raceme 2 to 8 in. long. Petals about the length of sepals, and somewhat united at the base; spur yellowish, the oval lip white, spotted and lined with purplish; 3-lobed, wavy edged. Scape, 8 to 20 in. tall, colored, furnished with several flat scales. Leaves: None. Root: A branching, coral-like mass.
Preferred Habitat - Dry woods.
Flowering Season - July - September.
Distribution - Nova Scotia, westward to British Columbia; south to Florida, Missouri, and California.
To the majority of people the very word orchid suggests a millionaire's hothouse, or some fashionable florist's show window, where tropical air plants send forth gorgeous blossoms, exquisite in color, marvellous in form; so that when this insignificant little stalk pokes its way through the soil at midsummer and produces some dull flowers of indefinite shades and no leaves at all to help make them attractive, one feels that the coral-root is a very poor relation of theirs indeed. The prettily marked lower lip, at once a platform and nectar guide to the insect alighting on it, is all that suggests ambition worthy of an orchid.
If poverty of men and nations can be traced to certain radical causes by the social economist, just as surely can the botanist account for loss of leaves - riches - by closely examining the poverty-stricken plant. Every phenomenon has its explanation. A glance at the extraordinary formation under ground reveals the fact that the coral-roots, although related to the most aristocratic and highly organized plants in existence, have stooped to become ghoulish saprophytes. An honest herb abounds in good green coloring matter (chlorophyll), that serves as a light screen to the cellular juices of leaf and stem. It also forms part of its digestive apparatus, aiding a plant in the manufacture of its own food out of the soil, water, and gases; whereas a plant that lives by piracy - a parasite - or a saprophyte, that sucks up the already assimilated products of another's decay, loses its useless chlorophyll as surely as if it had been kept in a cellar. In time its equally useless leaves dwindle to bracts, or disappear. Nature wastes no energy. Fungi, for example, are both parasites and saprophytes; and so when plants far higher up in the evolutionary scale than they lose leaves and green color too, we may know they are degenerates belonging to that disreputable gang of branded sinners which includes the Indian-pipe, broom-rape, dodder, pine-sap, and beech-drops. Others, like the gerardias and foxgloves, may even now be detected on the brink of a fall from grace.
The Early Coral-root (C Corallorhiza) - C. innata of Gray - a similar but smaller species, whose loose spike of dull purplish flowers likewise terminates a scaly purplish or yellowish scape arising from a mass of short, thick, whitish, fleshy, blunt fibres, may be found in the moist woods blooming in May or June. It has a more northerly range, however, extending from the mountains of Georgia, it is true, but chiefly from the northern boundary of the United States, from New England westward to the State of Washington, and northward to Nova Scotia and Alaska.