Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Stop Thief! - Parasitic plants in Mid-Michigan

Ask almost any student and they will tell you that plants produce their own food.  Ask further and they will tell you that the process that plants use to produce food is called photosynthesis.  Depending on the age of the students, some of them may know that photosynthesis happens when a green pigment (chlorophyll) in the plant is hit by sunlight it converts carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen.  The sugar is used by the plant as food and the oxygen is released into the atmosphere.  This ability to make its own food is what make a plant a plant.

However, there are some plants that have lost the ability to produce their own food.  Instead, they steal food from other plants - their roots invade those of other plants and steal sugars from those plants.  These plants have become parasites.  I have found three parasitic species here in Michigan:  two of them locally Beechdrops (Epifagus americana) and Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora).  The third species, American Cancer-root (Conopholis americana), I photographed at Interlochen State Park in Grand Traverse County in northwest Michigan.

If these plants cannot produce their own food, are they plants?  Yes!  Their ancestors formerly had the ability to photosynthesize, but over time lost that ability when they developed the ability to take food from other plants.

Beechdrops are parasites of the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia).

Beechdrops
 
Beechdrops

Beechdrops

The Indian Pipe parasitizes several species of trees including American Beech and some pines.  It also is a parasite of several species of fungus.

Indian Pipes

Indian Pipes

Indian Pipes

American Cancer-root (also known as Squaw-root) is a parasite of Oak trees.

American Cancer-root

American Cancer-root

American Cancer-root

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