Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Saprophyte No More . . .

Posted by Kirk

My knowledge is obsolete

The last week of summer camp I discovered some unusual plants in the forest with my campers. I immediately recognized them as saprophites.

Sapro: meaning obtaining nutrients from non-living matter and phyte: meaning plant.

Here's the problem. My knowledge is obsolete. I wanted to identify the exact species and apparently saprophyte is a term no longer used. It was explained to me years ago that a saprophyte is a plant that lacks chlorophyll and thus obtains nutrients from decomposing organic matter. The problem is that now scientists say no plant can do that. What is actually happening is that the plant is engaging in parasitic behavior. It parasitizes a fungi to steal nutrients and it is the fungi that are taking the nutrients from the decaying matter. You may think it is a technicality, the plant is stealing nutrients from fungi rather than taking them from decaying matter, however now scientists say the term saprophyte is technically incorrect and misleading.

They now refer to a plant such as this as a Myco-heterotroph. Great, the kids will really remember that. It isn't a saprophyte kids, it is a myco-heterotroph. I had a hard enough time teaching the word saprophyte to third graders. In reality, they will probably remember the name Ghost Plant, Corpse Plant or Indian Pipe better. I think that's what this is. I've seen it here before but this clump looks different. I think what you see in the photo is an already pollinated flower. The petals have fallen off and it is now standing up straight as opposed to nodding.

Either way, fairly elusive and very cool.