Each year I go with a collection of friends, the boarders and the boss to the Adirondacks for a camping and canoeing trip. We’ve been going for years and it has become one of the highlights of the year. This year was the first that the whole Rounds inequitable collective set out to hike a middling sized mountain near where we camp.
Mount Ampersand is a bit over 3000 feet so doesn’t qualify as one of the 46 peaks over 4000 in the Adirondacks, but poor choices about logging and a few forest fires have left the summit bare. It has a tremendous view all around looking east towards whiteface and the high peaks and north over the Saranac Lakes. I need little excuse to hike up a mountain, but the youngest boarder takes many more steps than I do and needs some encouragement.
The two boarders enjoy nature in very different ways. Hikes are perfect for the older one; he’ll pretty much run up a mountain with little care for anything along the way. The other one would hike a quarter of a mile in the same amount of time then call it a day. He likes to find things, and if we let him collect them.
So to make the beginning of the hike pass we looked for mushrooms of different colors. The beginning of the trail from Middle Saranac runs through some wet, dark and rich woods and is full of all sorts of fungi, moss and lichen.
Off the side of the trail I spotted some indian pipe or corpse flower and probably got a little over excited. It’s not that indian pipe or, Monotropa uniflora is so rare because it isn’t. It’s just freaking cool and a great example of how natural selection can change the way an organism looks.
Most plants are autotrophs: they make their own food. At least mostly they make their own food. The vast majority of plant species rely on fungal partners to help extract nutrients from the soil. The fungi extend far out into the soil and provide the plant with soil nutrients, like phosphate and nitrogen. The plant provides the fungi with the sugars it makes during photosynthesis. It is a relatively equitable arrangement: unlike parenthood.
Indian pipe has taken the reliance on others to the extreme. Rather than using fungal partners for some nutrients and making sugar, it takes everything from the fungus. Since the fungi are getting their sugars from nearby plants, in this case trees, the plant actually gets its sugars from the photosynthesizing trees. It has become a complete heterotroph – just like we are.
The plant, as you can see in the picture, lacks chlorophyll (the green pigment) entirely. They also don’t need leaves, so over the years they have lost the structures. Yet it still flowers: at the top of those ghostly stalks are flowers. If it didn’t need to make babies, it could live entirely underground off the kindness of its neighboring trees and fungus.
As is often the case, the children did not find this as interesting as I did. They did like the puffball fungus though and both wanted to figure out a way to grow it in the garden. We did make it to the top of Ampersand and the view was appreciated by all – sure it took nearly 5 hours to hike 6.5 miles, but it’s a start.