Indian Pipe is a Parasitic Plant of Trees and Fungus

On a recent hike along Pamilia Creek, I came across this clump of Indian Pipe grow­ing under a dense stand of large Dou­glas fir.  It caught my eye, because even though it’s a herba­ceous plant, it looks more like a fungus.

In fact, I always assumed Indian Pipe, like many fungi, lived off of the decom­pos­ing leaf lit­ter of the for­est floor.  After all, it doesn’t have chloro­phyll and can’t man­u­fac­ture its own food.  But I was wrong.  Again.

Today sci­en­tists know that there aren’t any plants capa­ble of directly break­ing down of organic mat­ter. None.

If Indian Pipe can’t make its own food because it doesn’t have chloro­phyll, and it can’t use the decom­pos­ing leaf lit­ter, how’s it survive?

It’s a Parasite

In order to get food, the roots of Indian Pipe spe­cial­izes in a form of par­a­sitism known to sci­en­tists as  myco-heterotrophy.

And here’s how it works.  Indian Pipe takes nutri­ents from the roots of  a tree, but not directly.  It actu­ally has its roots tap into and take nutri­ents from a fun­gus asso­ci­ated with the tree’s roots.

But in order for that to make any sense, you have to under­stand the rela­tion­ship between the fun­gus and the tree.

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe, a plant par­a­site we found near Pamilia Lake

You see, the fun­gus and tree have  a mutu­ally ben­e­fi­cial thing going on.  The fun­gus is all these tiny, thin threads like micro­scopic roots, which are known as mycel­lia.  The mycel­lia are much smaller than even the finest roots of the tree.  And they tap directly into the tree’s roots.  Which the tree is very cool with, because the mycel­lia are like exten­sion cords for the roots.  They get into a way larger vol­ume of soil that the tree ever could on its own.

The mycel­lia pass some of the water and min­eral nutri­ents they absorbed from the soil to the tree.  In exchange, the fun­gus gets car­bo­hy­drates from the  tree.   Each organ­ism helps the other out in this sym­bi­otic relationship.

Many fungi and trees have this type of rela­tion­ship — called a myc­or­rhizal rela­tion­ship.

Back to the Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe is a free­loader.  It doesn’t give any­thing back to the fun­gus or the tree.  It takes min­eral nutri­ents from the fun­gus that the fun­gus had got­ten for itself, and it also takes car­bo­hy­drates that the fun­gus gets from the tree. It’s a direct par­a­site of the fun­gus and an indi­rect par­a­site of the tree. That’s the fairly unusual form of par­a­sitism known as myco-heterotrophy.

I am always amazed at what I can learn from a sim­ple walk through the woods.  Like how many of the links between plants, the soil, and water are hid­den from my casual obser­va­tion. Truth be told, I didn’t know that Indian Pipe was a par­a­site until I looked into it for this post.  I won­der what else I think is so, but isn’t.

The sci­en­tific name for Indian Pipe is Monotropa uni­flora.  It’s also  known as the Ghost Plant  or Corpse Plant

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