Thursday's Guardian Country Diary concerns toothwort Lathraea squamaria, the parasitic flowering plant that depends entirely on hazel trees for its nutrition, since it is a plant without chlorophyll.
There is no hint of the plant's presence until March, when its scaly flowering shoots, which look quite reptilian and menacing, erupt through the soil.
They're attached to hazel roots and some, like those in the picture above, can appear in grass some distance away from the trees, revealing how far hazel roots extend underground.
After a brief flowering period, during which they attract bumblebee pollinators, the flowering shoots soon set seeds and then by early summer they wither away.
Almost every wild flower book that I've ever read explains that the plant's common name arose from the appearance of its flowers, which resemble rows of discoloured teeth, and then go on to suggest that it acquired its name via the Doctrine of Signatures. This fanciful notion, which dates back to Roman times and the physician Dioscorides, claimed that plants to look like a part of the human body will cure that organ's ailments. So with it's toothy appearance, toothwort must surely be a cure for toothache.......
...... but there seems to be no evidence that anyone ever tried to use the plant in that capacity. In their scholarly work Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition (2004) David E.Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield could only find one slight reference, in Gerard's Herbal, to a medicinal use for the plant and that was to treat lung complaints. It seems that the use of toothwort in folk medicine for dental self-medication is one of those plausible myths that never dies but is endlessly repeated.
The Doctrine of Signatures owes much to the German botanist Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541) who, unsurprisingly, is best known by his shortened, Latinised name: Paracelsus. He refined the concept and it was later taken to absurd lengths by the English herbalist William Coles (1626-62), whose book Adam in Eden, or Nature's Paradise, woven together religion and botany, claiming that God created plants to look like body organs in order to signify their medicinal virtues to humans, extending the Doctrine far beyond the limits of credulity for all but the most devout.