Parasites in paradise

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—

Indian Pipe

Say the word “parasite” to a friend (go ahead, I dare you) and you’ll likely receive a look of disdain that’s (most likely) partnered with some sort of negative sound effect. If you are lucky, you might “get” to hear a biased story about some moochy, mutual friend. To make matters worse—toss out the classic joke “Q: What do you call a parasite on a Loon? A: Loon-a-tick”—and you are likely to get eye rolls, head shakes and possibly lose a friend or two. In the simplest terms, parasites are to be avoided and the joke is just not that funny. Parasites (and the loon joke) are like the complete opposite of a win-win.

The famous entomologist, E.O Wilson, described parasites as “predators that eat prey in units of less than one.” Dictionaries define parasites as organisms that “derive nutrients from another organism … at the other organism’s expense.” Despite these less than glowing reviews, there are still parasites that bring smiles to countless human faces each year, and many of them (parasites, humans, and faces) can be found right here in St. George!

Take the parasitic Indian Pipe or ghost flower (Monotropa uniflora) of the Heath family (Ericaceae) for example. While everyone agrees that photosynthesis in plants is mind-boggling and incredible, Indian Pipe is a plant that skips the whole “create your own sugar” thing and instead goes rogue and taps into underground sources for nourishment (a plant race away from the sun).

Polinated Indian Pipes

When they rise from the earth, Indian Pipes are “ghostly white” to “partially-pinkish” (no green chlorophyll here!) with a single, nodding flower at the top of each white stalk. Their look changes once the flowers are pollinated, as the Indian Pipe flowers redirectionalize themselves, face upwards and the entire plant turns to black. The coloration and morphology phases of Indian Pipe make for a diverse observational experience that can really only be compared to that of a slime mold. In other words they are fun to watch. Very cool, if you are into that kind of thing.

In truth, Indian Pipes only parasitize trees in an indirect sort of way. Their roots take nutrients from underground, mychorrhizal fungus that happen to have a symbiotic relationship with the local trees! To grow, an Indian Pipe plant takes a portion of the sugars that a mychorhizal fungus receives from a tree in exchange for nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients. It’s a parasitic arrangement that doesn’t kill the fungus or the tree and results in cool-looking, ghostly Indian Pipes sprinkled throughout the woods! Win-win.

Pine Sap

And Indian Pipes aren’t the only Heath to go down the “parasitic path.” Pine Sap (Monotropa hypoithys) is a closely related (same genus!) parasitic plant that is also found in the forests of St. George, albeit in less abundance than Indian Pipes. Pine Sap is easily identifiable with its tannish coloration and multiple, nodding flowers on a single stalk. And parasitic all the way.

Another local parasitic favorite is the Lobster Mushroom. In the case of a Lobster Mushroom, it’s a mold (Hypomyces lactifluorum) that attacks a mushroom from the family Russula (Russulaceae); often Peppery Milky (Lactarius piperatus) or short stalked russula (Russula brevipes) mushrooms. The mold “arrests the development” of the parasitized mushroom while using the structure as a platform to release its own spores. The result is a warped mushroom completely covered in reddish-orange skin, somewhat reminiscent of a cooked lobster—thus the name (HELLO)! As it absorbs nutrients the mold also prevents Russula mushrooms from doing their Russula mushroom duties (spreading spores). On a side note, the mold also happens to turn the parasitized, fungal bloom from a not-particularly-appetizing mushroom into a prized “choice” edible, a delicacy that has been cooked in restaurants and grilled on barbeques for hundreds of years (or eaten for a long time). Here is a parasite that pleases both the eyes and the palate!

I have to say, in no way are we trying to minimize the effects parasites can have—they are here, among us and even the best of us get them (trust me on this). And while spraying clothes and being vigilant with tick checks has become a part of life with parasites in mid-coast Maine, there are still examples of this natural relationship that can get heads noddin’ at the marvel of it all. Parasitism is an aggressive alternative to doing it yourself, and examples of such behavior are found throughout nature. Some of these parasites and parasitical relationships can even inspire smiles. What a world.

See you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

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