Last week, my eldest son and I went on a hike on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge (Dog Mountain). It was a hot day, but we hit the trail early, and reached the summit before noon. Large fields of balsamroot and other wildflowers along with a breathtaking panoramic view of the valley below were the payoff for the arduous climb up the hillside on endless switchbacks.
But even with the stunning beauty at the mountain top, the deep forest which led up the hill contained its own fascinating finds.
At the top of my list was an odd looking plant which stood maybe 16 inches tall. This unusual plant was entirely white except for a yellow margin on the lower lip (labellum) of each flower. The leafless stalk was lined with as many as 30 blossoms by my count.
But as strange as this plant looks, its story is equally as strange. It is commonly known as the phantom orchid, but is also referred to as a snow orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae, or Eburophyton austiniae).
Some sources list the phantom orchid as rare, although I never would have guessed by the hundreds of plants we came upon on our hike. Still, this was my first sighting of the snow orchid.
The reason that the phantom orchid stands out is because it is one of a small group of plants which do not use photosynthesis to make their own food. The vast majority of plants are autotrophic, which means they contain chlorophyll. Autotrophic plants use chlorophyll to convert sunlight into chemical energy. Heterotrophic plants like the phantom orchid lack chlorophyll, so they have devised alternate methods to feed themselves. Many steal from organisms that have already done the work of producing chemical energy. This makes most heterotrophic plants parasitic.
The intent of this post was not to go into great details of how a heterotrophic plant feeds. It was merely to introduce the phantom orchid in the most basic sense. The full story of how a phantom orchid and similar plants get their food is more elaborate and more incredible than what I have revealed. It is part of a complex web of interdependence and struggle that goes on, unseen and unheard just inches below the forest floor.
To find out more about heterotrophic plants, click here.
If you are fascinated by what you find out, check out my other posts on Mutualistic.net. I think you will be amazed by some of the ways organisms have evolved into forming partnerships with organisms of entirely different species in order to meet the needs of both.