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SAVING THE COLEMAN'S CORALROOT
Coleman’s coralroot is a beautiful orchid found at only three sites in the Sky Islands of Arizona, with one population in the Dragoon Mountains and two in the Santa Ritas. In the Santa Rita Mountains, one population grows in the footprint of the proposed Rosemont copper mine, a massive open-pit mine that could obliterate the entire population. In the Baboquivaris, the orchid has already been extirpated, likely due to overgrazing by cattle. The orchid’s surviving populations are all threatened by livestock grazing, recreational impacts and global climate change. Just discovered to be a separate species in 2010, the Coleman’s coralroot is already in danger of extinction.
To save the orchid from that fate, in September 2010 the Center petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect it under the federal Endangered Species Act. When the agency failed to move forward in the protection process, the Center filed a notice of intent to sue.
One of the most unique plants on Earth, Coleman’s coralroot has neither leaves nor roots and doesn’t make its own food through photosynthesis. Instead, it gets nourishment from a symbiotic relationship with host fungi that colonize the roots of trees and shrubs. Because the orchid is completely dependent on its host relationship, it’s threatened by any factor that disturbs the soil or threatens the fungi it needs to survive. The orchid spends most of its life underground, putting up flowering shoots only when environmental conditions are right. In any given year, there are far fewer than 200 of the flowers above the ground in all the populations combined. If the flowers are trampled by recreationists or consumed by cattle, the orchid is unable to reproduce. During drought conditions, the orchids may not surface at all, making this species very vulnerable to drier conditions from global climate change.
COLEMAN’S CORALROOT } Hexalectris colemanii
DESCRIPTION: Except for its flowering stem, orchids in the genus Hexalectris are subterranean and appear above ground only to flower and reproduce. The flower of Coleman’s coralroot has a pinkish to cream stem and showy striped purple to pink petals with maroon or purple stripes.
HABITAT: Coleman’s coralroot grows in scrub oak and oak-pine-juniper habitats. It occurs in canyon bottoms and on the sides of canyons in partial to moderate shade. It has been found in areas with duff and heavy leaf litter, in sandy loam with leaf litter and in very thin humus layers. In some areas, it is found among rock outcrops or on the edges of rocky cliffs. The coralroot can only survive in association with the fungus and tree and shrub roots on which it is dependent for food.
RANGE: Coleman’s coralroot is only found in McCleary Canyon and Sawmill Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, and in a single population in the Dragoon Mountains. It once occurred in the Baboquivari Mountains, but that population has been extirpated.
LIFE CYCLE: This plant does not bloom or come up every year. It typically flowers in May and June, though flowering in the orchid may vary based on rainfall, temperature, nutrient availability, or a combination of these or other unknown factors. At any given site, Coleman’s coralroot can produce as many as 75 plants in one year and zero plants the following year.
THREATS: Coleman’s coralroot is threatened by mining, livestock grazing, recreation, drought and global climate change.
POPULATION TREND: Only four populations of this orchid were ever known, and one of them no longer exists. The remaining three populations combined have fewer than 200 flowers in any given year. Populations are known to decline in times of drought.