With their leafless stems, bowed heads, and unusual pallor, pinesaps (Monotropa hypopitys syn. Hypopitys monotropa) resemble their cousins, the ghost pipes (M. uniflora), but typically sport warmer hues and bear multiple flowers per stem. Pinesaps exhibit significant seasonal color variation, ranging from sallowest yellow in early summer to waxy vermilion as the season progresses. As the stem unfurls, all the flowers face the same direction and eventually point upward as it matures. In this form, the stem and seed capsules dry and persist into the coming year, providing a clue as to the whereabouts of this elusive perennial.
Pinesaps are mycoheterotrophs, or, plants that parasitize fungi in the soil and do not produce energy of their own from sunlight. The fungi, in turn, have symbiotic relationships with forest flora and serve as conduits of nutrients between trees, the surrounding soil, and other plants. In this case, the pinesaps contribute nothing in return and, as their common name suggests, actually tap the trees themselves for sustenance through the fungal third party. However, neither the trees nor fungi are harmed through this apparent thievery, which is actually believed to benefit the woodland ecosystem by triggering transfer of nutrients where they are most lacking.
Having no need of chlorophyll to convert sunlight into sugar, pinesaps have dispensed with it entirely, along with functional leaves, which have been reduced to mere scales along their stems. This has also resulted in their unusual color — or lack thereof.
Pinesaps are irregularly distributed throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. In the Pacific Northwest, look for them in conifer woodlands in deep shade on bare soil where little else grows. Stems appear both singly and in large clumps.
Pinesaps currently have two botanical names that are the reverse of each another. They are currently in the genus Monotropa (“once turned,” in reference to the shepherd’s-crook stems of pinesaps, ghost pipes, and their kin), although recent analysis suggests that pinesaps are more distantly related to the others and should be in their own genus, Hypopitys (or, “under pines”). However, the name change is not yet official and thus each name is a recognized synonym of the other.
Typical Western Washington pinesap habitat:
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