Now is the time to discover one of Britain’s strangest plants, the Toothwort Lathraea squamaria, also known as Dead Man’s Fingers. Between March and May these sickly looking flower spikes burst from woodland floors where the plant parasitises trees such as Hazel, Alder, Willow and Elm. It completely lacks chlorophyll and takes all of its nutrients from these trees, before producing ivory-white seed-capsules which resemble teeth. Its scientific name Lathraea comes from the Greek word lathraios meaning secret, referring to a large portion of the plants lifecycle that remains hidden underground. Rather surprisingly, this plant does not feature in either herbal medicines or folklore.
It can be found from the English Channel into the southern Highlands, especially in areas of extensive Hazel or tracts of ancient woodland, as well as in hedgerows and along riverbanks. However, it is largely absent from Wales, East Anglia, the eastern Midlands, south-west England and the South Downs. The Botanical Society of the British Isles atlas illustrates the distribution here. Toothwort has declined, the reasons for which are currently unknown.
These beautiful spikes were photographed at Aysgarth Falls, North Yorkshire.