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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