The term “saprophyte” has been applied to certain plants that lack chlorophyll and derive their nutrients from the uptake of minerals from the decomposition of organic material in the soil. Derived from the Greek words sapro meaning “rotten material” and phyte meaning “plant,” the term was used in the recent past to describe these plants but now this definition has now changed.
Plants that are parasitic fall into the category of “heterotrophic” plants. Heterotrophic means “other feeding” and encompasses a group of plants that lack chlorophyll in their leaves or stems; hence, they must obtain their nutrients from another source. Divided into two main groups, there are the those that feed off of other plants through haustoria, which are fine filaments that extend from the roots of one plant and which penetrate the root system of a host plant, to draw nutrients from that plant. A couple examples of these parasitic plants are members of the Broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) such as Broomrape (Orobanche uniflora) and Ground Cone (Boshniakia strobilacea).
The other group, which used to be called “saprophytes,” are now called “mycotrophs” or “mycotrophic” plants. This term means “fungus feeder” and refers to a group of plants that parasitize soil fungi or bacteria to derive their sustenance. These mycotrophs don’t kill the soil fungi; the fungus is also connected to the roots of a host plant through hyphae or fungal threads. This mycorrhizal fungus acts like a bridge or intermediary connecting the host plant and the mycotrophic plant to the fungus; however, the fungus does not receive any benefit from being parasitized by the mycotrophic plant. Wildflowers that were once considered saprophytes, many of them in the Heath family (Ericaceae) or Orchid family (Orchidaceae), are now considered mycotrophs.
Nowadays, the term saprophyte is used to describe the species of soil fungi and bacteria that derive their nutrients from dead or decaying material.
The Heath family has over 4000 species and nearly 125 genera making it a diverse and species-rich group. Flower types range from urn-shaped flowers typical of blueberries or ground-hugging heathers to the larger, showy flowers of rhododendrons and azaleas. Many important commercially-harvested plants are in this group which includes blueberries, cranberries and wild huckleberries. Though not all members of the Ericaceae are heterotrophic, there are a number of plants that have evolved this unique status such as Indian pipe, pinedrops, pinesap and others, including orchids. Another amazing part of this equation is that several of these mycotrophic plants are associated with a single species of soil fungus.
Ghost plant or Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, grows in temperate locations in North and South America, as well as in Asia and Russia. The plants lack chlorophyll and have waxy-white stems but may have some black or reddish spotting. Each stem bears a single, urn- or bell-shaped flower that is pendulous and contains about a dozen stamens and a single pistil. The scientific name means “one direction” (Monotropa) and “single flower” (uniflora) both of which refer to the growth habit of the flowers. As the capsule-like seed pod forms, it arches upwards and as the seeds mature the stems may turn blackish at this point. A midsummer bloomer, this plant appears in the duff or humus-rich soil in woodlands. The stem coloration and pipe-like shape of the stem and flower give the plant its common name. The plant has been used as an antispasmodic and nerve-relaxing herb, sometimes given to children with epilepsy or convulsions.
Closely related, Monotropa hypopitys or Pinesap, is another member of the Heath family and fellow mycotroph. A single reddish-yellow stem the color of pine sap arises often in a loose cluster and bears a cluster of yellowish urn-shaped flowers that hang downwards. The flowers attract bees, but may also be self-pollinating. When mature, the fruit is a soft capsule. Also found growing in the understory, this mycotroph feeds off of soil fungi. Its scientific name means “one direction” (Monotropa) and “under pines” (hypopitys) and refers to the single direction of the flower’s orientation and the habitat type that these plants grow in the western and eastern US.
Pinedrops, Pterospora andromedea, is another mycotrophic plant that grows in coniferous or pine forest understory. Borne on upright stems that may reach 3’ tall, the plants bear yellowish-brown urn-shaped flowers that attract insects as pollinators. When mature, the flowers form a small capsule. The scientific name means “winged seeds” (Pterospora) and “of Andromeda” (andromedea), the mythical maiden that was chained to some oceanic rocks by her father to appease the monster Cetus that was causing havoc on his country’s coastline. Instead of being devoured by the sea monster, Andromeda was saved by the hero Perseus. The plant’s seeds have tiny translucent skins that act as sails and help in the seed’s dispersal away from the parent plant. Medicinally, an infusion of the stems was used to control nosebleeds and hemorrhaging. This plant occurs in the western half of the US and Canada and in the northeastern US states into Canada.
Somewhat similar to Pinedrops is Candy Stick or Sugar Stick, Allotropa virgata. The upright stems are streaked with red and white stripes and bear red and white colored urn-shaped flowers. Allotropa means “turned outward” in reference to the flowers growing in all directions around the stem. Virgata means “twiggy” or “rod” in reference to the thin stems which may grow upright in a tight cluster. This plant resembles some magical candy cane growing out of the forest floor like something from a fairy tale. Grows in the western US into British Columbia.
Though limited in its distribution, Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanquinea) is a striking member of the Heath family. The fire-hydrant red wildflower blooms in the late spring or early summer as snow levels recede. The urn-shaped flowers are also pendulous and, when mature, bears sticky seeds that are released from an opening in the bottom of the capsule. The scientific name means “the bloody fleshy-like thing” which describes this truly unique looking wildflower that grows from southern Oregon into California, Nevada, and northern Baja California.
These plants may grow naturally in a garden or woodland setting but are not commercially cultivated due to the need for beneficial soil fungi. Sometimes referred to as “fungus flowers,” due to their appearance pushing up from the ground and the way they obtain nutrients and water like a mushroom, these plants make for a wonderful topic of conservation as they seem to sprout right out of the forest duff and perhaps in a backyard garden.