Indian Pipes

09 Jan

Monotropa uniflora

Ericaceae (Monotropaceae)

From the middle of December until this week John and George deferred exploration of Sebranch state park in favor of family activities and dental appointments, but today we got back to it. During the holiday hiatus John developed an eye for an odd plant you don’t see often. Twice he found Indian Pipes, Monotropa uniflora, a ghostly white species in the azalea family.  We checked it out in Seabranch State Park today.

Indian pipes in flower.  By John Bradford

Indian pipes in flower. By John Bradford

The pipes are white because they have no chlorophyll; they have no chlorophyll because they do not photosynthesize; they don’t photosynthesize because they depend 100% for nutrition on fungi associated with the roots. The fungi extract nutrients from decaying soil organic matter and apparently more importantly steal sugary nutrients from neighboring plants.  The guilty fungi form mushrooms, so probably you can sometimes see all three members of the trio at once:  trees, mushrooms, and Monotropas.  No, I did not say every mushroom in the vicinity is involved.  Problem is, what goes on underground is complex and exasperatingly hard to study.  Research reveals the Monotropas to be fussy about their fungal friends, although this seems to vary geographically.

What’s turned out is that in the huge world of root-fungus symbioses, Monotropa and its close relatives possess their own mycorrhizal system, not even the same as the rest of their own Ericaceae family.   The fungus makes a net around the root, covering the tip, and fungal strands penetrate the root forming “pegs” but never breaking through into the actual root cell contents.  There are major anatomical changes in the root to accommodate the invader and to facilitate nutrient transfer.  The greatest fungus-root activity occurs as pods and seeds form.

The pods stand upright.  By John Bradford

The pods stand upright. By John Bradford

Monotropa favors conifers.  Radioactive carbon introduced experimentally to conifers crossed the fungal bridge into the Monotropa, and the reverse occurred with phosphorus.  A fungus-mediated swap?  Perhaps, but you can bet there’s far more to the story.  Certainly the non-photosynthetic Monotropa needs what pine photosynthesis makes—complex carbon compounds, mostly sugars, and the pine conceivably needs help from the fungus middleman, if not from the Monotropa itself, to extract phosphorus from its dreadful soil and its organic detritus.  Who’s benefiting when and who’s getting ripped off needs more radioactive research on all three partners.  Three-way symbioses are becoming fashionable!

Mycorrhizae happen in 80-90% of all plants, but there are probably not too many cases where the fungal partner spoons sugar to its root partner.   Well, to one of its root partners, in this case, the fungus acting sort of a biological Robin Hood, stealing from the rich (pine) and giving to the poor (Monotropa).  I wonder if Monotropa is in Sherwood Forest.

Answer: Yes, Friar Tuck marveled at Monotropa.  See the 2nd paragraph, 6-7 lines up from the bottom. CLICK

(I like UK connections in the blog as a nod to our long-standing British blog friend Mary.)

The UK Monotropa underscores a bizarre distribution.  Monotropa is as widespread as it is small. There are only two species, yet Monotropa spans almost all of North America, much of South America, and is in Europe and Asia.  The genus used to be bigger, but DNA has broken up many a traditional assemblage!  (Such as reptiles, to the dismay of many, but wrong blog.  Don’t ask.)

These plants are primo examples of convergent evolution, that is, evolution of similarities among unrelated organisms. Many plants in other families are parasitic, and many have gone the no-chlorophyll route. These include the broomrapes, beach drops, squaw roots, and oodles of others.  I’ve encountered the number 400 species of no-chlorophyll fungus-dependent plant species.  This is no big surprise, given that most plants have symbiotic root fungi (mycorrhizae)—some just take it to the limit.  Here is a fun relevant link in the world’s best plant web site.  Click to visit my hero Wayne Armstrong who does community college botany right.

Indian Pipe pollination merits a quick closing remark.  You don’t see these plants often—they are ephemeral, environmentally fussy, and, well, hard to spot.  This raises questions of pollination, which botanists have addressed in recent years.  Often isolated species are self-pollinated for obvious reasons, but today’s plants need to exchange pollen with others.   And you might expect spotty species to benefit from a broad array of pollinators, but nope, just bumblebees insofar as known, pinching the environmental scope of the Monotropas.  Given their huge geographic range, though, they can’t be too imperiled.  Still, you get the feeling that— just like many other scrub species–as the scrub patches shrink as subdivisions grow, minimal viable thresholds may apply, and species may evaporate from small sites consequently.  You can’t count on postage-stamp preserves to save the day.


Posted by on January 9, 2015 in Monotropa



19 responses to “Indian Pipes

  1. Martin

    January 10, 2015 at 9:37 am

    “You can’t count on postage-stamp preserves to save the day.” Boy, ain’t that the sad truth.

    “…but DNA has broken up many a traditional assemblage! (Such as reptiles…” Huh? Sorry, no comprende.

    • George Rogers

      January 10, 2015 at 11:48 am

      Here is a graphic from a useful relevant link showing “paraphyly” in reptiles. (From If to be a reptile, you have to be most closely related to all other reptiles, you have a problem if crocodiles are more related to birds than to other reptiles. That clashes with a fundamental principle of classification. If an animal is classified as a dog, you really don’t want to find it more closely related to cats than to other dogs…that’s just messed up, and demonstration of paraphyly messes up traditional classifications. DNA removes most doubt.

      How to deal with the problem is another question, with different possible solutions. One way to deal with many problems is to ignore them.

      • Martin

        January 26, 2015 at 9:23 am

        I got it now – thanks. Actually I had stupidly missed the syntax – DNA has shed the LIGHT OF TRUTH on many examples of what were formerly considered almost biblical hierarchies of lineage.

    • leonorealaniz

      January 12, 2015 at 2:01 am

      Am enjoying the good humor of George again. Here in Massachusetts Indian Pipes seem almost common. Kids who live near woods know them. They are not so hard to spot, because they are “tall”, 4-6 inches, when not much else has shot up from the ground. Theylike light, live under high canopies, that could be pine or leaf trees, streching their stems only to look downward again with bent necks.
      Martin: no comprenede? He means the BIGG reptiles, the saurier family et al.

  2. George Rogers

    January 10, 2015 at 10:49 am

    The size and diversity is part of what makes JD park so precious. That, and the chicken salad sandwiches in the store. Oh boy, I knew I should stay out of the cold-blooded reptilian realm, but traditional large plant groups are getting busted up too. Let me cop out by trying to find a link written by somebody smarter than I am….messy messy business! most of the trouble comes because precise DNA research makes it possible to detect an evolutionary headache called paraphyly, a term not exactly in everyday vocabulary. Until the 80s, not much in anyone’s vocabulary.

    Here’s the basic deal using dogs as a made-up example. Let’s say dogs are an animal family, but that chihuahas are so distinctive and so diversified it was intuitive and customary to classify them in their own separate family.

    Then along comes a dog taxonomist with DNA who shows that chihuahuas are (and I’m making this up) more closely related to beagles than to anything else, and vice versa. Oh no, we have a family embedded within another family. A miscarriage of classification! The made-up dog family was just revealed to be paraphyletic. Every member of a group must be more closely related to other members of the group than to anything outside the group. In short, a branch of an evolutionary tree, with no grafting. Just like a people family—I’m more related to my parents and siblings than to anybody else.

    Unfortunately, biological classification is loaded with paraphyly (and other complications), never much of a concern until DNA coupled with an increased precision in evolutionary analysis cast a bright clear light on it.

    In the case of reptiles, well, guess what, birds are the “chihuahuas” of the fake example. If birds are more closely related to some reptiles than all other reptiles are to each other, well, dang, that’s bad. Something has to be revised. Ouch.

    If I find a good link, I’ll post it.

  3. theshrubqueen

    January 10, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    I don’t think I have ever seen any of these – fascinating, hope to see some soon.

    • George Rogers

      January 10, 2015 at 9:24 pm

      I suspect from pesonal experience, not from actual data, that they are more commonly encountered farther north. My problem is, they just are not eye-catching and could walk past the plants very easily missing them altogether.

      • theshrubqueen

        January 10, 2015 at 9:33 pm

        I have spent a fair amount of time in the woods further north?! probably just never noticed them, they blend in well it seems.
        On another note about further north the Poison Ivy and Muscadines look different here ( I was looking at your book) I thought we were too far south for Poison Ivy because I wasn’t recognizing it.

      • George Rogers

        January 11, 2015 at 9:29 am

        Species are usually highly variable with geography, with age, with environmental variations, and with genetic variations within a population. Everything looks different, everywhere…or not. Common class experience: Student, “this doesn’t look like XXX.” Teacher, “it looks exactly like XXX because it is one.”

        Among many ways variation can be tied to location is an interesting phenomenon called a cline. A cline is a gradual or stepped directional change in a species along a geographic/environmental gradient. My personal favorite is in pokeweed, where across Florida and a good way up the east coast (but only on the coast) the inflorescence stands up right, but north of Florida, as you go inland the inflorescence go from erect to droopy. The difference is genetic. If you transplant a droopy to an erect habitat, the droopy stays droopy. Clines can be a basis for varieties recognized within species. And now combine clines with clones. A lot of species reproduce asexually part (or all) of the time so you can get areas covered or dominated by single clones here, and dominated by different clones there. As an example, I like Hornworts. There’s a species of Hornworts where the male clone covers one huge area in the Appalachians, and the female cone lives separately miles apart. In fact, a different species has males in the Appalachians and the females in Japan…not an amicable divorce. Some clines are purely environmental, based entirely on, oh, let’s say soil pH or temperatures or moisture, or altitude. If a cline persists a long time the populations along the cline may more or less follow different evolutionary paths with difference locking in genetically, and expanding. We could go on all day talking about variation patterns within species. Botanists have made entire careers of it…with major ramifications to the basic definitions of individual species, and to attitudes about species in general. A lot of classification “error” is rooted in under-appreciated infraspecific variation. I feel (and have seen) the more a species or species complex is studied, the more difficult simplistic and localized species designations become.

        If you ever get nostalgic for the north woods, you’ve got all the poison ivy here you could ever want.

        George Rogers, Ph.D. Horticulture Dept., Palm Beach State College 561-207-5052 ________________________________________

  4. Suellen Granberry-Hager

    January 10, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    Another interesting post about intricate ecological interactions that we are not aware of.

    • George Rogers

      January 10, 2015 at 9:22 pm

      Hi Suellen, How is it all going!?

  5. Suellen Granberry-Hager

    January 11, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    Busy. A little difficulty with getting the internship hours approved, but I will let you know if there is a real problem. Meanwhile, how are things on the grasslands of Africa?

  6. George Rogers

    January 11, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Pretty nice today on the grasslands of Rverbend Park—am acquiring special affinity for cypress swamps…at least at this season. Encountered one of the biggest snakes today I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo. Don’t know what kind, a serpent to behold. Maybe it was those hormones in the water! If you get into a problem re. internship, get ahold of me.

  7. George Rogers

    January 12, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Hi Leonore, right—they seem more prevalent up your way. I used to climb Mt. Monadnock (spelling?) and look down upon you. I think the part bothering Martin was, “what the heck did I mean that the reptiles no longer exist as a natural classification?”

    • Martin

      January 26, 2015 at 9:37 am

      Nope, I got it, it just took me a second. I remember being told way back by someone “It depends on whether you see yourself as a lumper or a splitter.” To me it’s kinda like forcing the square peg into the round hole. Or like demoting Pluto!

      • Martin

        January 26, 2015 at 9:41 am

        And the idea that the DNA proves that birds are actually flying dinosaurs; yea, even much more so than alligators are obviously walking, talking modern dinosaurs. And that makes the folks who want to intuitively put everything into cubbyholes, throw up just a little.

      • George Rogers

        January 26, 2015 at 1:12 pm

        Martin, Right—the problem comes when we want to force too much of what we “know” onto situations—true of just about everything isn’t it!? DNA has stirred the pot a lot…I’m having “trouble” with some major redefinition within the fern world.

  8. grapehamburger

    February 21, 2017 at 11:33 pm

    I encountered an Indian Pipe on a hike around northern Florida about 10years ago, (memory escapes me where). I was obsessed with this strange little creature. I touched it and it melted in my fingers. I have only seen it one other time, but I was almost all blackened and melted away. I’ll have to see if I have a picture some where I can upload.

    • George Rogers

      February 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

      Pretty unusual in FL for sure, combining spotty distribution with brief appearance. If you can find the photo, please upload it…or email it to me for uploading


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