Can you say, “Mycotrophic Wildflowers”?

Do you love new vocabulary as much as I do? When I learn a new word I want to work it into my everyday vernacular. Mostly so I can try to sound smart. But this post isn’t about my inferiority complex, it’s about wildflowers! Well, kind of.

What has no chlorophyll, parasitizes the hyphae (filaments) of a mycorrhizal fungus, and looks like alien asparagus?

Why, it’s mycotrophic wildflowers!

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea). Or as I like to call them, Freaky Alien Asparagus.

Okay, so not all of them look like alien asparagus, but you get the idea. It sure doesn’t look like a wildflower, which is what makes this group of plants really interesting.

Myco = fungus, and trophic = having to do with eating. Lots of people used to confuse these species with saprophages (or detritivores), which are organisms that feed on decaying organic matter. Fungi and bacteria fall into this category, but mycotrophic wildflowers are something different entirely.

Many of you may have seen this ghostly organism in the forest or in books:

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) in California.

This is Indian Pipe, or Ghost Plant, which I will call Pipe because I don’t like holdovers using the word “Indian” and they look like pipes. Pipe is a strange, colorless stalk that grows from the forest floor. For a good while, people just assumed it was some kind of freaky fungus, but not so!

Pipe and other mycotropic wildflowers like it are not actually feeding on any decaying matter. In fact, their roots attach to underground fungi, which in turn are attached to the roots of vascular plants. Vascular plants are those plants that have fancy tissues allowing water, minerals, and sugars to move through the plant (think about it like a human circulatory system), like trees and wildflowers.

The tiny filaments between the fungi and the roots are called mycorrhizae, and a kind of trade happens here: the fungus slurps delicious sugars from the plant and, in return, the plant is able to absorb a greater surface area of water and minerals from the millions of tiny filaments. According to this strangely designed webpage, 90% of plants have a mycorrhizal buddy!

So our mycotrophic wildflowers have roots that attach onto this mycorrhiza and divert nutrients into themselves. The filaments end up acting as a conduit for nutrients and the fungi essentially receive nothing. The wildflowers are, then, parasites, feeding not on, but through the fungi. And they do it with such pizzazz!

Snowplant (Sarcodes sanguinea), a fungi-feeding-flower.

They’re called wildflowers because they actually produce small, strange flowers and seeds. The pinedrops in the next photo are in the flowering stage, with tiny bell-shaped flowers. Eventually, the whole plant will die, dry out, and the seeds will drop to the ground to make baby alien asparagus.

Those crazy colors are a result of a lack of chlorophyll, which appears to us as the color green. (Remember, chlorophyll is that awesome stuff inside plants that allows them to take sunlight and water and turn it into sugar. Plants are called “producers” because they are able to manufacture their own food, whereas “consumers” cannot and need to eat other things.) I couldn’t find anything specifically explaining why, with a lack of chlorophyll, these plants are turning out in shades of white, red, yellow, cream, and sometimes purpley. However, I do know that in the fall, deciduous leaves appear to turn colors when in fact the green chlorophyll was actually masking the reds, yellows, and purples that are in the leaf the whole time.

Maple leaf showing its “autumn” colors; really, just having lost its “summer” color!

Carotenoids and anthocyanins are responsible for those “fall” colors, but are always outshone by chlorophyll. When autumn rolls around and the chlorophyll breaks down, the leaf’s “true colors” are revealed. So my guess is that the carotenoids and anthocyanins are responsible for the strange, otherwordly colors of mycotrophic wildflowers because they contain no chlorophyll. Pretty neat, huh?

So, there you have it. Today you’ve gained a whole variety of new vocab words: mycotrophic, saprophage, mycorrhizae, carotenoid, anthocyanin. Time to throw a dinner party!

The next time you’re in the woods, keep an eye out for these super-sweet fungus-flowers, and just imagine all of the millions of tiny threads beneath your feet keeping the planet chugging away. :)

Thanks for reading, and if you want to see more of these strangely beautiful plants, check out this great little blurb by the US Forest Service.

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Posted on October 6, 2010, in Flora and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I call these Nuclear Asparagus! They are real big and kind of glow.

  2. I love this. Thanks for stopping by my blog so I could find you.

  3. These are wonderful photographs! Too bad only the Pipe occurs in the Southeast. I’ll have to plan some trips to see the others.

  4. I saw the senescent flowering stalks of these last winter in the Sierra Nevada and wondered what in the heck they were!

    How about “Ghost Pipes”?

  5. I just moved to the Black Forest in Colorado Springs, and found these growing on my property. They are wonderful. I was thinking of transplanting them to another area of my property, but in reading how they are hosting, I believe that would probably kill them. It’s a shame because I thought perhaps they would look nice in my wild flower bed. Can the seeds grow in different locations?

    • Hi there! You could certainly try – when the flowers have died and left behind hard little bell-shaped seed pods, try collecting some. The thing that will probably determine whether or not they grow is if they have enough mycelia beneath the soil to parasitize. Pinedrops seem to prefer drier soils with lots of coniferous trees around, so if your garden varies too differently from that, they may not grow either. There’s certainly no harm in trying. :) Good luck!

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