Purple toothwort (Lathraea clandestina) is a beautiful, unusual and quite rare plant that hides in shady damp places among the roots of trees (hazels, alders, willows, poplars etc) and has just begun to flower now, at least in East Sussex. It was introduced into the UK in the late 1880’s from mainland Europe but has escaped into the wider environment where it is now quite at home.
The exposed roots really do resemble molar teeth which is how it supposedly gained its common name. The flowers have no above ground stem instead emerging directly from the soil and once they have fulfilled their purpose, they dive back underground until the following Spring so you need to be quick if you want to get acquainted with them. Having no leaves at all, the plant contains no chlorophyll so can’t photosynthesize but instead is entirely parasitic, depending on the roots of its host tree to provide it with both nutrients and water.
The nectar has a very particular chemical make-up, rich in sugars, strongly alkaline (pH 11.5!) and contains ammonia. It is believed that the nectar has chemically evolved to specifically attract bumblebees – its pollinators – whilst deterring unwelcome pests such as ants and birds which can’t pollinate but would otherwise take a free meal. I haven’t tried it (yet!) but the flowers are said to produce a burning sensation on the tongue.
After an extensive search through my books and the internet, I cannot find any solid medicinal or edible references (other than the odd rumour of being used somehow against toothache) except for use as a homeopathic remedy which suggests its use in those who could be described as “weakling, soft, friendly, communicative. Needs help from others, cannot be independent because he is too weak. Feels dirty. Too tired to wash his dirt off. Uses his friendliness to get friends and help, to be able to ask for help”.
However, a quick search of its chemical constituents leads to information on some interesting components that it shares with other plants that certainly do have medicinal applications. One substance, aucubin, is present in many plants besides Purple toothwort including Plantain leaf, Devils claw, Cleavers, Mullein and Agnus castus . Aucubin has “antioxidant, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, anti-fibrotic, anti-cancer, hepatoprotective, neuroprotective and osteoprotective properties”. Two other components, acteoside and isoacteoside have also been identified – both of which are thought to be responsible for antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions in other medicinal plants.
Perhaps one day its full range of medicinal possibilities will be identified. Whatever its physical properties may or may not be, it certainly lifts my spirits whenever I see it. A strange, slightly sinister and mysterious presence in the woods, especially when I come across a blanket of deep purple flowers nestled around the tree roots. To me it is a reminder that even in the darker, colder, wetter months, nature is getting on with her business providing food for early bumblebees and bringing much needed mystery, beauty and drama to the woods.