Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fungus-eaters

While exploring the deep woods of Tar Hollow State Forest the other day, I came across both representatives of one of our more bizarre plant families. Both species are below.

Like ghostly skeletal fingers, the aging stems of Indian-pipe, Monotropa uniflora, claw from the humus of a rich woodland. Parasitic, this species and all members of the Monotropaceae lack chlorophyll, giving them this distinctive and decidedly unhealthy look.

Although a bit past peak, it is still easy to see how Indian-pipe came by its specific epithet, uniflora: one-flowered. Indian-pipes have devolved the need to produce chlorophyll. They tap into the mycelia of fungi, and uptake nutrients from the vast web of subterranean fungi that underlies everything that we haven't destroyed. The fungi in turn are interrelated with forest trees, once again underlining the expansive and peculiar ecological web that we scarcely understand.


I was especially excited to come across this one, the other species in the Indian-pipe family (although some place them in the much larger heath family, Ericaceae). It is Pinesap, Monotropa hypopithys, which is generally far less encountered than is Indian-pipe. To me, it is showier, with a raceme of multiple flowers tinged creamy yellowish. This plant is not yet in full bloom; as it matures the flowers will open a bit more. Pinesap is known from perhaps one-third of Ohio's 88 counties, but it is easy to overlook. Discovery is compunded by the fact that it blooms in the heat of mid-summer, when woods are dim and shady, and full of deer flies and other biting nasties.

After successful fertilization, these flowers will become more erect. The specific epithet hypopithys means "under pines" and the common name Pinesap reinforces that this is a plant to seek amongst conifer stands. However, there wasn't a pine to be seen where I found this one, and most that I've seen have been in the acidic dry soil of oak-dominated ridgetops. Like the Indian-pipe, Pinesap requires fungi for fuel.

If you find yourself out in the forest, keep an eye out for these oddities.

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4 comments:

Jenn Jilks said...

Yes, I have seen these, or something like it before. Erect IS the word I would use! Oh my. :-)

Jana said...

I like Indian pipes. I found some recently behind a rest stop on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania. An exciting find! Didn't know about the pinesap variety. Thanks.

LauraHinNJ said...

Still hoping to find these someday.

dAwN said...

Always love to see Indian pipes..
Great post! you have one of the best nature blogs out there in my humble opinion!
Always great photos, informative and witty! Thanks