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This Picture is Worth 300 Words

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

This photo tells a story about a mushroom and a plant. Two species are clearly visible: a slightly snail-chewed red-capped Russula mushroom is being snuggled by a trio of ghost pipes. These two species are not in the same kingdom - the mushroom is a fungus, in several ways more closely related to humans as to plants. And the ghost pipes are plants that blur traditional roles in the forest’s food web. I've never seen this pair emerge from the underworld in such close proximity, and in some respects, one might chalk it up to coincidence. But I know just enough about the underground workings of these species to believe that, out of our sight, they are probably quite intimate life partners. Ghost pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are non-photosynthetic plants. Ghost pipes and their kin don’t follow the typical strategy plants use to get energy -- using chlorophyll to photosynthesize carbohydrates out of sunlight and air -- instead, they plug directly into the "wood wide web," the mycorrhizal network of fungi and plant roots that threads through the forest's biologically rich soil. Ghost pipes are called myco-heterotrophs (meaning they receive their energy from fungi). Technically they are considered parasites on fungi -- taking food, perhaps without giving back. If you have been on my walks you know that I dislike that categorization -- many of the lines we’ve drawn to categorize living things are much blurrier than we can possibly know.

Researchers have demonstrated that Russula are among the most common mycelia that mycoheterotrophic plants tap into. So when I found this scene, I couldn’t help but conclude that these organisms are in close proximity for a reason. Very likely they are intimately connected underground. The ghost pipes subsist on energy provided by the Russula (carbohydrates that, in turn, originated in nearby trees). In this instance both individuals synced up their “blooms,” and emerged in the same spot, during the same week of summer.

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