Wildflowers that are parasites

Parasite.

To humans, the word has a pejorative connotation.

None of the plants shown below are green in color.  That’s because they each lack chlorophyll, that green substance that traps light energy from the sun, which is then used by those green plants to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugars in the process of photosynthesis.  Since the plants shown below don’t fuel their activities by photosynthesis, each must obtain its food from other plants known as “hosts.”  Some of the plants shown below have very specific plant hosts that they rely upon, while others are far more indiscriminate.

Be that as it may, each of the following opportunistic plants offers its own version of blooms to earn the right to be called a wildflower.

 

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) –

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe is a native perennial forb.  The plant hosts of Indian Pipe are certain fungi whom themselves have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees; this biological relationship is called a mycorrhiza.  Since Indian Pipe is not dependent on sunlight to grow, it can often be found in relatively dark environments such as the forest floor of dense woodlands.

Indian Pipe: New blooms on the left, stems and empty seed pods from last year on the right

After blooms have been pollinated, the plant straightens out to stand vertically and, as it goes dormant, the plant stem dries out to form a rigid “pole” atop which the seed pod then disburses its contents by simply popping open.  I think the seed pods resemble pumpkins.

Indian Pipe

The dried plant stems and seed pods of Indian Pipe are weather-resistant and therefore remain persistent on the forest floor.  Once you recognize this life stage, you will be able to easily and confidently identify this specific wildflower at any time of the year – even in winter.  Welcome to forensic botanizing!

Indian Pipe

 

Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys) –

Like Indian Pipe, Pinesap is a native perennial forb that also obtains its nourishment from fungi associated with tree roots, often those of oaks and pines.

Pinesap

The dried plant stems and seed pods of Pinesap, just like those of Indian Pipe, are weather-resistant.  They, too, persist on the forest floor.  Note that, unlike the single seed pod on each stem that Indian Pipe exhibited, Pinesap always exhibits more than one seed pod per stem.  Once you recognize this life stage, you will also be able to easily and confidently identify this specific wildflower at any time of the year – even in winter.

Pinesap

 

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) –

Beechdrops is a native annual forb.  Beechdrops parasitize the roots of beech trees using a structure called a haustorium which collects the nutrients the plant requires from its host.

Beechdrops

Beechdrops

Just as with Indian Pipe and Pinesap, the dried plant stems and seed pods of Beechdrops are weather-resistant and therefore persist on the forest floor throughout the year.  Therefore, they too, enable you to identify this specific wildflower once you learn to recognize this life stage.

Beechdrops

 

Common Dodder (Cuscuta gronovii var. gronovii) –

Common Dodder is a native annual vine.  While it can be found in a variety of habitats, most often you can find it growing in damp areas with partial or full sunshine, such as the edges of wetlands or streams.

Similar to Beechdrops, Common Dodder relies on haustoria to draw moisture and nutrients from its host.  However, these haustoria are located along the stems of this plant and they effectively serve as modified roots that penetrate the host plant.  In the photo above, the yellowish orange stem with white flowers is Common Dodder.  Note that it is wound around its host; in this case, the host plant is Mad-dog Skullcap.  However, Common Dodder is not associated exclusively with Mad-dog Skullcap.  In fact, it is quite indiscriminate in the variety of host plant species to which it attaches.

Watch “Attach of the Parasitic Plant!” featuring Common Dodder.

Happy trails!

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