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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Saturday - August 23, 2008

From: Rapid City, SD
Region: Midwest
Topic: Plant Identification
Title: Weird-looking rootless plant, perhaps a fungus
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

While out it my backyard (i.e. the Black Hills of South Dakota), I spotted a weird-looking rootless plant (I think it may be a fungus) growing beneath the Ponderosa Pines. It was the only one in the area and the only one I've ever seen. Anyway, further identifying features: ~18 inch stem -- bright pink and sticky Inverted yellow bell-like "flowers" at the top with not many "leaves" to speak of I know fungi aren't plants, but do you have any idea what it is?

ANSWER:

Mr. Smarty Plants believes you saw Pterospora andromedea (woodland pinedrops). Here is more information from Michigan Natural Features Inventory and here are some more photos. It is a very interesting plant since it has no chlorophyll and can't make its own food. it forms an association with a mychorrihizal fungus which is then associated with tree roots, generally pine tree roots. Botanists consider it to be saprophytic (living on dead organic matter), instead of parasitic on the pine tree or, alternatively, parasitic on the fungus. There is also the thought that this is a beneficial relationship with the mychorrhizal fungus in which the fungus increases the supply of nutrients to the plant by increasing the surface area by which it can absorb decaying matter. The fungus may benefit by using some of the carbohydrates that the plant produces. Such plants that associate with mychorrhizal fungi are called mycotrophic plants.

Here are some more flowers that resemble fungus.

Here are mycotrophic orchids that occur in South Dakota.

Corallorhiza odontorhiza (autumn coralroot)

Corallorhiza maculata (summer coralroot)

Corallorhiza striata (hooded coralroot)

Corallorhiza trifida (yellow coralroot)

Corallorhiza wisteriana (spring coralroot)


Pterospora andromedea

Pterospora andromedea

Pterospora andromedea

Pterospora andromedea

 

 

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