Friday, September 11, 2009
Pinesap, despite its name, is a flowering plant in the same order (Ericales) as rhododendrons, azaleas and blueberries. It is in the same genus as the more common Indian Pipes, that ghostly white flower that is sometimes confused with a fungus. Like Indian Pipes, Pinesap is a parasite.
Name: Pinesap is Monotropa hypopithys where hypo means under and pithys means pine. An
entry in Wikipedia states that Linnaeus meant to say ‘pitys’ instead of ‘pithys’. I guess he didn’t have his spell-checker turned on. Either way, it is a reference to pine trees. The plant is often found growing under pines. The common name, Pinesap, is probably because the color of the plant early in the season is similar to the pale amber color of pine sap.
When and where found: On Saturday, September 5, I found a large clump of Pinesap in the Conant Land. Earlier last week, I also saw it in the Estabrook Woods, Towle Woods and Great Brook Farm State Park. It is not ubiquitous like its cousin, Indian Pipes, but so far this year I have seen more than I usually see in an entire year.
Distinguishing characteristics: Pinesap grows in clusters and this time of year it is quite colorful. If we didn’t have enough reminders that we are past Labor Day, with back-to-school, cooler nights, and ripening pumpkins, we would have the changing color of the Pinesap. This time of year the stalks are red and the flowers are red and yellow. They blacken as they age.
You are most likely to notice young plants when the red stems push up through the brown of the leaf litter and pine needles at the edge of a trail. It can get to be over a foot tall but most I see are around six inches. When it first comes up the flowers are nodding and as they mature, they turn and face skyward. Since the plant has no chlorophyll and has developed a parasitic way of life, it has no need for leaves to catch sunlight for photosynthesis. In place of leaves, there are small leafy scales on the stem. Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) has only a single flower per stalk, hence the name ‘uniflora,’ while Pinesap has many.
Food chain: Both Pinesap and Indian Pipes take their food from photosynthezing plants, but not directly. They use a middle man, a fungus that is symbiotic with a tree. Some fungi are parasitic on living plant material while others are wood rotters converting dead wood to food. Yet others are ‘mycorrhizal’ which means they form very close associations with the roots of living plants and trees and absorb carbohydrates through those connections. In turn, the mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of the roots and pass water and trace elements back to the plant resulting in a healthier, stronger plant. The Pinesap somehow fools the fungus into making an attachment to its roots. The fungus is no doubt expecting delivery of carbs but it has been duped. The flow of nutrients is in the other direction – from the fungus to the Pinesap. Pinesap and Indian Pipes both seem to be benign parasites whose appetites are not so large that either the fungus or the plant are damaged.
Other parasitic plants: There are many species of parasitic plants. Not counting Indian Pipes and Pinesap, I have seen two in Carlisle. One is Dodder (See Mosquito online archive – June 29, 2007) which you can still see at the Cranberry Bog. It has a very up-front in-your-face way of stealing food. It wraps itself directly around the stems of the host plant and uses modified roots called haustoria to penetrate the plant and suck out its food proudly in the broad light of day. The other I have seen only once. It is called Cancerroot. I found it last year in the Towle field. It builds a tumor-like growth on the roots of plants and takes food from there in the dark of the underground.
References: Connecticut Botanical Society at www.ct-botanical-society.org.
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