By Elena Ulev
Broadcast 6.28 & 7.1.2023
Striped coralroot, candy stick, ghost pipe, and pinedrops. What do these plants have in common besides their fun names? They’re all “fungus flowers,” or scientifically speaking, mycoheterotrophic flowers, and they grow in Montana. I rarely find them but when I do I feel like I’ve hit the botanical jackpot.
The word mycoheterotrophic literally means fungus nutrition. Most plants conduct photosynthesis and make their own food from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. Fungus flowers, however, cannot conduct photosynthesis, making them not only look bizarre but function in a bizarre manner.
Fungus flowers rely on a fungal association called mycorrhizae for their food. This is how it works: fungi have an enormous network of tiny underground threads called mycelium that connect plants’ roots to each other. Think of it as a giant subterranean nervous system where the trees, shrubs, forbs, grasses, and mushrooms communicate with each other and help each other thrive. The fungi’s tiny mycelium attach to the root systems of photosynthetic plants and help those plants obtain water and minerals. In return, the photosynthetic plants help the fungi obtain sugars, helping them grow. Fungus flowers take this one step further. They tap into and parasitize the mycorrhizal fungi—and the fungi get nothing in return.
Last summer I found a striped coralroot growing beneath a Douglas-fir on my property in the Seeley-Swan area. I unknowingly pitched my tent too close and almost stepped on it because it was camouflaged amongst the duff. Finding the coralroot was very exciting for me and probably akin to how a rockhounder feels when they find an amazing rock. I felt compelled to admire it and touch it several times a day.
Coralroot is in the orchid family and is named after its roots, which look like clumps of ocean coral. It can grow up to 2 feet tall but the one that I found was only 6 inches tall. The stem is a maroon color with 10-25 pinkish, striped flowers. Spotted coralroot, which is also found in Montana, looks similar but the flowers are polka-dotted instead of striped. There are only seven species of mycoheterotrophic coralroots in the United States and we’ve got two in western Montana. How lucky are we?!
I have been on the lookout for years for what I think is the most wonderfully weird fungus flower of all: candy stick. Alas, I’ve had no luck. It belongs to the heath family and looks like a candy cane, with white and red stripes running vertically along the stem. They grow in lodgepole pine forests in southwest Montana and require the mycelium of matsutake mushrooms to survive. Candy stick is a potential species of concern, according to the Montana Natural Heritage Program.
I’ve never seen a ghost pipe, also known as a ghost plant, either. It is a short white plant, also in the heath family, growing only 4 to 8 inches tall with a singular nodding flower. They typically grow in clusters and require rich humus found in dark, shady forests. Ghost pipes rely solely on the mycorrhizal fungi of Russula mushrooms. Indigenous peoples honored this plant for its medicinal and spiritual properties.
I find pinedrops far more often than other mycoheterotrophic plants. They are the tallest fungus flowers in the heath family, growing up to three feet tall. Last June I saw two fresh ones in Pattee Canyon growing beneath ponderosa pine trees and serviceberry shrubs. They were fleshy and had yellow and pinkish urn-shaped flowers. More often, I find dried-up pinedrops that are dark reddish–brown and their spent flowers look like little nodding chestnut-colored pumpkins.
It’s amazing how much communication goes on in the soil between plants and fungi. More of these associations are discovered every year by scientists, emphasizing the interconnectedness of nature.
Next time you’re hiking in a damp, dark forest, keep an eye out for fungus flowers. Their strange beauty is something to behold.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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