A lovely, ghostly native

Photo © Lauretta Jones.

Green is my favorite color, in no small part because it is the color of growth and renewal in nature. Coming out of a long monochromatic winter, the fresh yellow-greens of spring never fail to brighten my mood. But why are plant leaves green? And why is the native Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) a ghostly white instead? Despite the visual similarity, it is neither a mushroom nor a fungus, but rather a bona fide member of the (usually green) Plant Kingdom.

Leaves most plants are green because they contain chlorophyll. Chlorophyll enables a plant to make food out of Sunlight and the carbon dioxide in the air through a process called photosynthesis. Indian pipes do not have chlorophyll, and hence are white rather than green. Without chlorophyll Indian pipes cannot manufacture their own food. But since they do not require the light to drive photosynthesis, they are able to thrive in deep shade where other plants struggle.

So what is its secret? How does the Indian pipe survive if it can't make its own food? Beneath the forest floor is a vast network of intertwined plant roots and fungi mycorrhiza that enable nutrient exchange and chemical links among the plants in the forest. Botanists are just beginning to understand the vast number of activities plants carry out beneath our feet in this network.

The Indian pipe taps into this network by connecting to a particular fungus from which it takes nutrients. The fungus, in turn, interacts with tree roots in a mutually helpful relationship, exchanging nutrients . But the Indian pipe is a simple freeloader: a parasite of both the fungus and the tree.

When rain arrives after a dry period, so may this mysterious native plant. Curling up from the earth it unfurls its delicate fluffy scale-like leaves and lifts a single nodding blossom. Indian pipes stand out against the darker ground, intriguing observant eyes with its unique coloration. After they are pollinated by bumble bees, they turn black and grow tiny seeds.

Text© Lauretta Jones. A version of this article originally appeared in the Somers Record. Send your nature questions to LaurettaJones@SomersLandTrust.org. Lauretta is the treasurer of of the Somers Land Trust, an artist and teacher, cyclist, gardener and ballroom dancer.

The Somers Land Trust is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit all volunteer organization committed to preserving open space in the town of Somers, NY. We work to protect the natural landscape  of our community through stewardship, advocacy and education.

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