Parasites and Mycotrophs of the Klamath Mountains
Green plants are considered autotrophs because they photosynthesize—making sugar from water and carbon dioxide. The world of heterotrophic plants is complicated but all have moved away from total energy production from photosynthesis toward obtaining organic carbon either directly from other living beings or through a parasitic relationship with a fungus. Heterotrophic plants include directly parasitic and mycotrophic forms. The conifer forests of the western United States nurture an exceptional diversity of heterotrophic plants.
Parasitic plants include ground-cones and broomrapes. These species contain no chlorophyll and obtain all nutrients by directly tapping the root system of host plants. Dwarf mistletoes (Arceuthobium spp.) are also parasitic. The oak mistletoes (Phoradendron spp.) are hemiparasites. These species obtain water and some nutrients from its host tree, but also photosynthesize.
Mycotrophic plants are represented in our area by species in the heath (Ericaceae), orchid (Orchidaceae), and broomrape (Orobanchaceae) families. These plants all obtain nutrients through an intermediary mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal relationships between fungi and plant are symbiotic, in that the fungi expands the root surface area and increases nutrient and water absorption for the plant while the fungi gets nutrients in return. Mychotrophs exploit this symbiosis by parasitizing the hyphae and the fungi unwittingly feeds the mycotroph. Some species in the heath family have both leafless (heterotrophic) and leaf-bearing (autotrophic) forms.
Insectivorous plants photosynthesize but need an energy boost. They obtain this by trapping insects and digesting their nutrients. Species like Darlingtonia californica survive on nutrient poor serpentine soils buy supplementing nutrients in this way.
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