A parasitic red plant

I don’t feature nearly enough plants on this site, and that’s because I was trained as a zoologist and don’t know much about botany.

But here’s a nice specimen. It’s the beautiful snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinia), a plant without chlorophyll. It’s a saprophyte, which means it lives on dead or decaying organic mater, and steals nutrients from the roots of pine trees via a shared underground fungus.  

Let the rangers of California’s Yosemite National Park explain it to you:

By the way, my collections of fruit flies in America’s national parks taught me that the rangers, and especially the ranger-naturalists, are a tremendous resource for the visitor interested in science. By all means take advantage of their expertise if you visit the parks. They love to answer questions about geology and biology, which are a welcome break from inquiries like “where are the restrooms?” and “can we bring guns here?”

19 Comments

  1. gravityfly
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Haha! “Can we bring our guns and religion here?”.

    Saprophytes…I didn’t know plants like that existed. I learned something new today!

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted June 20, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      If we want to be picky (and I always do)…

      “It’s a saprophyte, which means it lives on dead or decaying organic mater, and steals nutrients from the roots of pine trees via a shared underground fungus.”

      These are separate things. No plants, so far as I know, are saprophytic–they do not obtain sugars or other nutrients from dead or decaying organic matter except in the very general sense that mineral nutrients (N, P, K, etc.) in the soil probably went through a living organism at some point.

      On the other hand, various plants do get sugars et al. from mycorrhizal fungi–these plants are myco-heterotrophic. Neither the plants nor the fungi are saprophytic; the plants are parasites on fungi, the fungi are mycorrhizal.

      The description in the video from 3:15 to 4:10 seems to be dead on.

    • Posted June 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      They want to bring their guns into the bathroom…maybe to try to scare the shit out of themselves.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted June 20, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        “An’ere I ‘ave wun o’them pee-stools!”

  2. Posted June 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, new for me too, Interesting to find out orchids fall in the same category.

    • Posted June 22, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      Well, not all orchids, but a subset of them, especially the non-chlorophyll-producing ones.

      Even more interesting when you consider the fact that as orchids, they’re already dependent on a specific kind of mycorrhizal relationship (one different from the ectomycorrhizal network they’ll eventually feed off of) to be able to germinate and grow in the first place.

  3. gbjames
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Anyone know how their seeds get distributed?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted June 20, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      According to botony.org :-

      The fruits are colorful and fleshy at this stage, and might think that some fruit-eating animal might be attracted to them. However, when they are mature, the fruits of the snow plant are dry and shed fruits through slits in the fruit wall. [...] Nobody knows how they are dispersed from one place to another. In order to grow, they must become buried in the leaf litter of a conifer forest. Probably they need to contact particular fungi in order to germinate. The geographical range of the snow plant is probably limited by the extent of the conifers and the fungi that the snow plant depends upon

      The plants are found in little colonies with large gaps between colonies.

      • gbjames
        Posted June 20, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        Interesting. (Said the sheepish man who realizes that he could just as easily googled it himself.)

  4. Posted June 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Red weed!

    /@

  5. Jim Thomerson
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    You can bring in your legal firearms but cannot shoot them, or carry them in certain marked places. Use of bear spray is prohibited as well. I suspect, if a bear wanted me for lunch, and I had available an effective illegal means to dissuade it, I would use same.

  6. Mary Canada
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful.

  7. Posted June 20, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    That is very pretty.

    As a botanist, I second what aspidoscelis wrote above. Lots of achlorophyllous plants are mistakenly called “saprophytic” but AFAIK they are all really parasitic. Some parasitize on other plants (mistletoes, broomrape, etc.), others parasitize on fungi (parasitic orchids, Monotropa, etc.). The latter state has likely evolved out of mycorrhiza, a symbiotic relationship with fungi.

    Haven’t done many yet, but here are a few more parasitic plants in case somebody is interested, although the Viscum is only hemiparasitic:
    http://phylobotanist.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/botany-picture-40-dipodium-variegatum.html
    http://phylobotanist.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/botany-picture-20-viscum-minimum.html
    http://phylobotanist.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/botany-picture-16.html

  8. Mark Joseph
    Posted June 20, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Oh, it’s a flower. When I saw “Parasitic Red Plant” I naturally figured that is was an artfully concealed communist spy…

    I’ll leave now.

  9. Posted June 22, 2013 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    At the risk of being pedantic, there’s really no such thing as a “saprophyte”, which literally means a plant that can consume dead organic matter. No plant has the proper physiology for that – though it was once (wrongly) hypothesized that achlorophyllous plants got their food this way, hence the name. However, there are a few plants that can directly parasitize other plants, and quite a few mycoheterotrophs, like Sarcodes, that are essentially hacking into the common mycorrhizal fungal network shared by the dominant forest trees.

    And at the further risk of self-promotion, I wrote an article about mycoheterotrophs a few years back:

    http://www.mykoweb.com/articles/Myco-Heterotrophs.html

    • Posted June 22, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      D’oh – I see that Aspidoscelis has in fact pointed this out already. Didn’t mean to be repetitious.

  10. Diane G.
    Posted June 22, 2013 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    sub

  11. Posted September 3, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    No plant has the proper physiology for that – though it was once (wrongly) hypothesized that achlorophyllous plants got their food this way, hence the name. However, there are a few plants that can directly parasitize other plants

    • Posted January 3, 2014 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      Noni Shampoo @ #11

      There are indeed a few truly parasitic on other plants, and not using fungi as an intermediary. Notably Cuscuta (dodder) However, they’re not “saprophytic” in the sense of breaking down dead organic matter the way many fungi and bacteria do, but rather directly parasitizing the vascular system of their hosts.

      There are also quite a few plants (such as Castilleja (indian paintbrush) that are “water parasites”, directly getting water from the xylem of the host. Those species are not achlorophylous, though and get their food via photosynthesis like other plants.


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