In my rambles through the late-summer woods, I am pleased to see that the indian pipes are emerging. They come up around late July, and are gone by mid-August. I thought that these things are fungi like mushrooms…but looking at one, I see they have what appear to be leaves, and a primative flower of sorts. So what form of life are these?
They’re plants. They’re related to the heathers.
They’re saprophytes, which means they don’t photosynthesize but instead break down organic matter, like fungi do. But they’re definitely Plantae.
0.24 seconds with Google.
It’s highly misleading to say that Indian Pipes are saprophytes, and there is no plausible mechanism by which such a plant could break down external organic matter.
They are in fact parasites on fungi, particularly the symbiotic mycorhizae of other plants. In that respect you could say they are partially parasitic on other plants. This has been well established by the administration of radioactive tracers to woodland trees. The tracer then shows up very rapidly in any adjacent Idian Pipes, far faster than could possibly be accounted for by anything other than parasitism.
Because Indian Pipes are entirely dependent on the organic matter found in other still-living organisms and cannot survive without a living host they are parasites or at an absolute stretch obligate symbiotes. They have never exhibited any saprophytic ability AFAIK.
Apparently I (and my cite, and (looking at Google) a heck of a lot of other cites) am working off of old information. I know that way back when I was seriously into amateur botany, they were believed to be saprophytes.
Actually I just figured you were using a very loose definition of saprophyte. That’s why I said it was misleading, not actually incorrect.
The knowledge that Indian Pipes are parasites isn’t that new, it’s well over a decade old.
If you do a Google search and tack site.edu on the end you’ll get the good oil.
Last week in my rambles I found a couple Indian Pipes barely sticking out of the ground. I had been wanting to see these flowers after seeing pictures in my wildflowers book, so I made a note of where they were. Even at the time, I was thinking to myself “Sure, I’ll find this place again. They’re under a tree, next to, um, other trees. And there’s some ferns, too <looks around at the approximately 1 billion ferns that make up my back 10 acres>. And there’s um, dead trees too.”
So it wasn’t with much hope that I took Mr. Athena back there last night after downing a couple beers. But I did it! I found them! And I not only found the two I saw, but a little more investigation turned up GAZILLIONS of them! There were patches where about 30 of 'em were coming up all together.
Indian Pipes are so cool.
The term i’ve heard that more correctly categorizes Indian pipes and other similar plants is “epiparasite” which means a “parasite on another parasite”. The parasite that Sarcodes (a pretty Californian epiparasite) utilizes is a fungus that forms a mycorhizzal relationship with the conifer forests they grow in. The other term which is more specific is Mycotrophic plants.
Mycorhizzal relationships aren’t usually harmfully parasitic. The fungus doesn’t generally harm the trees they associate with. They do send their hyphae into the root tissues of trees, but they don’t harm the tree, instead they supply the tree with more water and minerals than the tree could get without the fungus, and the funguus gets amino acids and carbohydrates from the tree. Both benefit (and i’ve heard that some plants do poorly and often fail without their microrhizzal partners).
Mycotrophic plants go one step further and act like the fungi do with the conifer, they tap into the fungus and steal nutrients from it.
A similar plant that isn’t in the Indian Pipe or Heather family is Pholisma arenarium, which is in a family of plants that are root parasites, the Lennoaceae. These grow on the roots of mock heather. Two others that are similar are Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) and Indian Warrior (Pedicularis). The latter two are only partial root parasites as they can manufacture some of their food. The latter two are also in the Snapdragon Family (Scrophulariaceae) along with Broom Rape (orobanche)