Research Report #63 — Some Flowering Plants Which Lack Chlorophyll in the Northern Shawangunks

Conopholis americana © Clay Spencer, Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Photographer

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Report: Some Flowering Plants Which Lack Chlorophyll in the Northern Shawangunks. January 1988. Paul C. Huth.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus:

Working with Dan Smiley over the years at Mohonk on his wide ranging ecosystem research projects, I spent a considerable amount of time identifying hundreds of sheets of mounted plants in his herbarium, and plants in the field. We often talked about what plants caught his eye in passing, and why, and what ones that he collected and prepared for the herbarium.

I liked to say to him, if Martian’s landed and looked at the herbarium specimens in collection to learn about local plant life forms, what would be their view and impression of the Shawangunk flora? We were amused that they would not find some of our most common or “core” species well represented, because Dan didn’t collect all the examples of those. Not because he didn’t see them, but because what caught his eye were mostly the less common species on the outer edges of the distributional curve, along with odd forms, like ones that were depauperate or showing some aspect of gigantism. For example, in 1986, Dan and I spent time recording 10 species that we considered “oversized” that year, and reported on them in Natural Science Note №119, “Oversized Plants,” released in August 1986.

Some truly odd flowering plants that Dan collected and we observed and recorded in the Shawangunks were those which lacked green color, or chlorophyll. How did they survive without it? What groups did they represent? Oddly, we found they flourish as parasites and epiparisites. These native species have curious common names like Beechdrops, Spotted Coral-root, Squawroot, Indian Pipe or Corpse-plant, Pinesap, One-flowered Cancer-root, and Dodder.

When I generally think of parasites, some notable species come to mind, especially those usually infecting mammals and birds. These include diverse species like roundworms, hookworms, flatworms, heartworms, lice, fleas, bedbugs, bot flies, and keds, to name but a few. I don’t usually think of native flowering, seed producing plants, existing as a form of parasite on another plant species.

In the Shawangunk flora, we found four species of plants lacking chlorophyll and mostly defined today as parasitic, representing two plant families. Each has a different growth form and utilize different host plants. In addition, four other species lacking chlorophyll, also considered parasitic, occur on mycorrhizal fungi!

CUSCUTACEAE (DODDER FAMILY)

Common Dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) a weak orange colored vine tangling over vegetation, and after maturing from a seedling, attaches at numerous points “by…means of…papillose roots” to the host plant. A search down the stems finds no remaining attachment to the ground. With us it has been recorded on Purple Loosestrife, Aster, Blackberry, and ornamental Tansy, but is reported on a wide diversity of other native species, like Jewelweed, and on agricultural and ornamental species. Recorded early on in the vicinity of Mohonk in the hand-written listing of the “Flora of Mohonk,” circa 1895, and in the vicinity of Minnewaska, in “Minnewaska’s Flora,” published in 1896, but in both, no locations are given. Dan considered it “rare” in the 1940’s. It was occasionally observed and collected on field trips between the middle of May and the end of August for over 40 years. It’s white- flowered bloom noted on 2 June.

Botanist John Torrey, in the 1843 “A Flora of the State of New York,” Volume II, describes the plant-“Stems filiform, orange colored, closely twining about the stems of other plants, and partly hanging loosely. Flowers sometimes rather loose, in small cymules or nearly solitary, but more commonly much crowded,…(stems) destitute of verdure, but furnished with little scales instead of leaves. Low grounds; very common.”

OROBANCHACEAE (BROOM-RAPE FAMILY)

Squawroot, Cancer-root, Bear Corn (Conopholis americana) — this parasitic plant is found in mixed hardwood forests, attached directly to mostly mature Red Oak tree roots, but sometimes found on American Beech. It produces a characteristic “stubby, scaly, cone-like yellow-brown stalk surmounted by a spike of lipped and hooded yellowish flowers.” Each flower with it’s “corolla a little curved, unequally 5-lobed.” Its overall height is usually about 6–8 inches, and each clump can display several stems. Its point of oak root attachment causes “a large woody gall” to develop. It apparently lives underground for some four years or so before sending up it’s annual stalk for up to several more years!

Dan first collected it on 26 May 1974 in the woods along Oakwood Drive. The best memories I have of it is from our twice monthly field trips to Chestnut Spring on the east slope of the mountain at the base of the Sky Top cliff to collect water samples for temperature and pH testing. There were usually several big clumps in the indistinct path up to the spring which could be watched all season.

In the 1843, John Torrey reported it found in “Shady woods in rich soil, often forming patches a foot or more in diameter; rather rare.”

In 1915, Norman Taylor, in his “Flora of the Vicinity of New York”, considered it “A rare and local plant”, “with stations known only from extreme southeastern New York”.

American Beech Tree below Dickie Barre. Note Beech-Drops plants at base of tree, lower right, as mentioned in the 1981 field trip, “with notable decades-old initials carved in the bark.” © 2017 Photo by Paul C. Huth

Beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana) — this stemmed and branching plant can reach a foot or more tall, and grows as an obligate parasite on the roots of American Beech, which is only found infrequently in our beech-maple mesic forests. Beech-drops grows and flowers late in the summer season, the fresh flowers mostly white with purple stripes. Of interest, the flowers are in two forms on the stem, “the lower flowers cleistogamois, fertile; (the)upper complete, mostly sterile.” The plant has an overall “disagreeable odor.” Our records are few, as are the American Beech stands that it requires. Dan’s brother Keith observed it for first on 19 September 1931, on the slope below the old Mohonk Golf Links. I remember a 21 October 1981 field trip with Dan and Bob Larsen up on the slope below Dickie Barre and above Kings Lane where we found and collected plants “under a large Beech tree,” with notable decades-old initials carved in the bark. The Beech tree is still there.

In the 1843, John Torrey reported it found in “Shady beech woods. Fl. September. Fr. October. The whole plant is astringent, and has long been celebrated as a remedy for cancers, dysentery and other diseases; but its virtues are greatly overrated.”

One-flowered Cancer-root, One-flowered Broom-rape (Orobanche uniflora) — this plant is parasitic on a number of species, including members of both the Saxifrage and Aster Families, including the sunflowers, goldenrods, and asters, and additionally on the Stonecrops. It’s seeds apparently “germinate in response to the presence of chemicals in the soil that the developing host plant produces,” with a fungus acting as an “intermediary.” Tubular flowers, produced one per stem, usually have five lobes “half the length of the violet-purplish corolla.” The hairy stems are usually only some 6–8 inches tall. Of interest, research has shown that “flowers are cross-pollinated by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees. One, Bombus pensylvanicus, has been observed collecting nectar. But apparently the flowers can also “self-fertil(ize).”

We found relatively few records of Orobanche uniflora. The earliest mention was in the hand-written listing of the “Flora of Mohonk,” circa 1895. Plants were observed on 16 June 1946 in the vicinity of Mohonk Spring. On 26 May 1968, another station was observed in the vicinity of Home Farm Spring, and on 29 May, six plants were found. Dan collected two for the herbarium. On 4 June, the stand was photographed, and more flowering stems were seen coming up. The same station was again noted on 31 May 1969, and on 21 June 1971. Another station was found west of the Duck Pond Brook on 30 May 1969. On 8 June 1974, Naturalist Alice Jones discovered a station of several plants along Eagle Cliff Road.

John Torrey in 1843 reported the species found in “Shady woods; frequent. Fl. May-June. Fr. July.”

In 1924, State Botanist Homer D. House, in his “Annotated List Of The Ferns And Flowering Plants Of New York State,” listed the species as found “in woods and thickets. Infrequent but widely distributed across the State, chiefly south of the Adirondack region, but apparently not in the Catskills.”

The following four species of our Shawangunk flora, members of the genus Monotropa and Corallorhiza, also lack chlorophyll. These species are generally considered parasitic, but on mycorrhizal fungi. They are sometimes called “fungus flowers:”

ERICACEAE (HEATH FAMILY)

Two Monotropa species are found in the Shawangunk flora, the Pinesap and the Indian Pipe. With us, “Pinesap is generally found in Oak woods,” and is encountered “much less frequently than Indian Pipe.” Indian Pipe is much more common and widespread, “in both coniferous and deciduous woods.”

Pinesap(Monotropa hypopithys) — is a small species, also called False Beech Drops, generally found growing under a foot tall, with us, usually in oak woods. It is distinguished from it’s related species, the Indian Pipe, in that it produces several terminal nodding flowers, instead of one in the Indian Pipe.

This species was first noted in the hand-written “Flora of Mohonk,” circa 1895, and in the “Minnewaska’s Flora,” published in 1896. Dan first photographed it on 10 July 1960 in oak woods in the vicinity of Bonticou Crag. In August, he found another stand in oak woods near Rock Rift. Dan collected specimens for the herbarium from the Trapps, south of Overcliff Road, near Middle Mud Pond on 16 October 1969, another west of Oakwood Drive on 5 August 1971, and the third, on 24 July 1975, west of the Top Of The Trapps, west of the Steel Bridge over Rt. 44/55.

In 1843, John Torrey reported it as growing in “Moist woods, particularly under Beech trees; rather common. July-September.”

Homer D. House, in 1924, listed it as growing “In woods. Infrequent throughout most of the State, but not reported from Long Island.”

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) — to me, this is one of the wide spread plants I look for in my travels around the ridge, like for example, in the moist deep woods around Rhododendron Swamp, that really tells me we have reached the summer season. It’s ghostly white 8–10 inch long sprout with a single flower bud usually emerges from the ground in the last week of June. On 23 June 1960, Dan noted that they were already “well above ground, (and) in ‘bud’”. Bloom occurs by mid-July, and has been noted extending to late August. Dan found one in bloom on Long Cedar on 20 October 1975!

The first Shawangunk record of the Indian Pipe we found in the third of a three- part article by M.H. Pike, entitled “Shongum,” published in the “Garden and Forest” Journal in the fall of 1892. Pike described a summer excursion into the Shawangunks, centered around Lake Minnewaska, where he says-“Within four miles of the lake (Minnewaska) I have noticed seventy varieties of blossoming and fruit-bearing plants. The Monotropa uniflora is unusually large and beautiful in shady places… ” The species was also listed in the hand-written “Flora of Mohonk,” circa 1895, and in the July 1896, “Minnewaska’s Flora,” complied by Ellen Markoe Dallas.

In the 1843 “ Flora of the State of New York,” John Torrey noted the “Whole plant pure white, but nearly black when dry…Shady woods; common. Fl. June-July, sometimes much later. Fr. September. The singular form of this plant, much resembling that of a tobacco-pipe, and its pure white color when fresh, make it an object of interest even to persons unacquainted with botany.”

ORCHIDACEAE (ORCHID FAMILY)

We have documented two species of Coral-roots in the Shawangunks, the Spotted Coral-root and the Autumn Coral-root. Research has shown that, “The Orchidaceae has the largest number of fungal parasites of any plant family.” “The complete dependence of these parasites on specialized families and genera of fungal hosts leads to rarity and increased environmental vulnerability.”

Spotted Coral-root, Large Coral-root (Corallorhiza maculata) — this species can be found growing up to a foot-and-a-half tall, as single or multiple stems. The stems are usually a rusty brownish color, the nodding flowers, in July and August, with a characteristic lower expanded petal, or lip, in striking white with purple spots. The earliest record of the species is in the hand- written “Flora of Mohonk,” circa 1895. Six stations for the species have been documented between 1929 and 1981, with three wide spread collections.

John Torrey in 1843, lists the “Large Coral-root,” as found in “Woods, in rich soil: the most common (Coral-root) species in New York. Fl. Middle of July- September”. Fr. October.”

State Botanist Homer D. House, in 1924, lists the Large Coralroot as occurring “In woods and thickets. Frequent or locally common in most sections of the State.”

Autumn Coral-root, Small-flowered Coral-root (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) — the Small-flowered Coral-root is much less frequent than the above species. It is usually less than a foot tall with a brownish stem and a terminal raceme of small 1/8 inch wide flowers, many times cleistogamous. Bloom usually occurs in late August through September. In New York State it has a Natural Heritage Program status of S4, meaning it’s apparently secure in New York State. With us, it has only been documented once, in the Trapps, on 1 October 1969.

In 1924, State Botanist Homer D. House says it’s found “In mossy woods and swamps. infrequent or rare from the lower Hudson valley, and the southern Catskills.”

So, seasonally, when you are out, watch for these unique plants, adapting to a life without chlorophyll!

Read the Report: Some Flowering Plants Which Lack Chlorophyll in the Northern Shawangunks. January 1988. Paul C. Huth.

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.