I renewed an old friendship while hiking the Turtle Mountain aspen forest recently: Indian pipe or Monotropa uniflora: A white plant!
Indian pipe is a member of the heath family. Although seldom observed, it can be found in rich woods across much of North America. The stem is about three inches tall, roughly a quarter of an inch in diameter, and at the top is a single tubular flower, slightly larger in diameter, about an inch long, and pointed slightly downward.
Indian pipe is one of a handful of plants native to North Dakota that does not have chlorophyll, so can not make sugars through photosynthesis. They obviously get their food from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is soil fungi.
Roughly 80% of terrestrial plants have root systems that are associated with a type of fungus. These soil fungi, or mycorrhizae, tap into the roots of photosynthetic plants to get sugar. However, the connection subsequently provides the plant with additional water and nutrients that the fungus acquires from the soil. As a result, the plant gets a significant amount of water and nutrients directly from the fungus. It is a relationship that benefits both participants. Indian pipe however, exploits or parasitizes these relationships.
Some of the mycorrhizal associates are the mushrooms you see in the woods, and some of the plant associates are trees. One gram of soil, one 28th of an ounce, may contain 100 yards of mycorrhizal filaments. The seeds of Indian pipe are very small, and for the seeds to develop into a plant, the seed must come into contact with a filament of one of these mycorrhizae. The plant then develops and grows by extracting sugars as well as water and nutrients from the fungus.
Indian pipe gets its sugars from mycorrhizae, but remember that the mycorrhizae are connected to another photosynthetic plant. So the sugars actually originate from another nearby photosynthetic plant, probably an aspen tree. In some ways the Indian pipe is parasitizing the aspen tree by using the fungus as a conduit.
And you thought life below ground was dull!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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