Crested coral-root orchids use fungus to gain nutrients.

Q: Do some plants take their nutrients from other plants?

A. That is a perfect question for Halloween. Here are some of the strategies plants use to survive and thrive. Harris County is home to about 20 species of orchids. Orchids are very advanced in their adaptations, and many cannot survive outside their native environment. Some of these plants live in deep shade and interact with fungus and trees, no longer needing photosynthesis to produce food. Recently, crested coral-root orchids (Hexalectris spicata) were discovered growing in the woods at Jesse Jones Park. The interesting spike of flowers has purple-and-sienna stripes on the petals. This plant is mycoheterotrophic, meaning that it uses fungus to extend its root spread to reach nutrients. The fungus, in turn, relies on surrounding oak trees and their massive root spread to share the nutrient highway.

Another mycoheterotrophic plant found in East Texas woods is the Indian pipe or ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora), and its white stems have no chlorophyll. Another group are the hemiparasitic plants like false foxglove (Agalinis species), a dainty pink-purple blooming annual that blooms along roadsides in early fall. In springtime, meadows show off the incredible red spikes of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja species). Both use the roots of other plants to supplement their food supply. The survival of these plants and fungi need this symbiotic relationship; they are resilient and not too scary.

Suzzanne Chapman
Author: Suzzanne ChapmanEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Suzzanne Chapman is the botanical collections curator at Mercer Botanic Gardens and promotes organic gardening, growing native plants, and protecting the environment. Send your questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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