I recently came across some Indian pipes in the Turtle Mountain forest. No, they are not the smoking kind. These Indian pipes are plants (Monotropa uniflora): White plants!
Indian pipe is a member of the heath family. It can be found in rich woods across much of North America but here in North Dakota it is most likely found in the Pembina, Bottineau, Rolette, and Ransom counties. The stem is about three inches tall, roughly a quarter of an inch in diameter, and at the top is a single tubular flower pointed slightly downward.
Indian pipe is one of a handful of plants native to North Dakota that do not have chlorophyll. So they obviously must get their food from somewhere else, and that somewhere else is soil fungi.
Biologists estimate that roughly 80% of terrestrial plants have root systems that are associated with a type of soil fungus. These soil fungi, or mycorrhizae, tap into the roots of photosynthetic plants to get sugar. The connection subsequently provides the plant with additional water and nutrients that the fungus has acquired 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. 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 plant, in this case probably an aspen tree. In some ways the Indian pipe is parasitizing the aspen tree by using the fungus as a conduit.
We tend to think that all the action in the biological world is above ground. The ecology of Indian pipe gives us a small glimpse of what goes underground, and what goes on underground is a much more active and complex place than most of us realize.
Below is a photograph of Indian pipe.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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