I've been agonizing over this particular post for days. The main content has been steeping in my mind for about a week, but technicalities have slowed me down in getting it posted. More about that in my next post.
I learned many new things during my 40+ hours of classroom and field time for OCVN, including lots of new terminology. In addition to being a nature nerd, I'm also a word nerd. I love words, and knowing what they mean (much like knowing the names of certain birds, flowers, butterflies, etc... but that's a topic for another post). Today I'm going to share with you a set of terms that really piqued my interest because the words are so unique and new to me.
The first set is saprophyte and parasite (or saprophytic and parasitic). I'm sure you already recognize the word parasite, but have you heard of a saprophyte? That was a new one on me. I learned about these words in relation to plants when we came across many examples of a particular plant during one of our hikes:
A discussion ensued as to whether this was a flower or perhaps some kind of fungi. After all, flowers usually have some green in them, right? Well, not all of them. Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is indeed a flower, but it's not green because it has no chlorophyll. Since it has no chlorophyll, it cannot photosynthesize, so it cannot produce its own energy (or "food"). As a result, it has to get its energy from somewhere else. Enter the term "saprophyte," which refers to an organism that gets its nourishment from dead or decaying organic material.
By contrast, a "parasite" is an organism that obtains its nourishment from living material, often to the detriment and harm of the host from which it is taking energy. This is a flower I happened upon a number of years ago:
At the time I was sure it was some kind of fungi, and I recall searching for "pinecone mushroom" and coming up empty-handed. I was delighted to finally stumble upon it in my Audubon wildflower field guide one day as I was flipping through the photo plates, and was thus able to identify it as Squawroot (Conopholis americana). This is a parasitic flower that gets its nourishment from oak trees. Several other plants in this parasitic family (the Broomrape family) include Beechdrops (host: Beech trees) and Naked Broomrape (host: various, including asters and clovers), neither of which I have encountered in person. In case you are wondering about the rather violent-sounding family name, it is in reference to what could be considered the "violent" parasitic nature of some plants within the family on certain shrubs in the pea family known as "brooms."
Lest you think that these terms can only be applied to plants, I came across an interesting example of these types of organisms in the animal kingdom: vultures are saprophytes and tapeworms are parasites.
In my next post we'll look at a set of terms that deals with reproductive strategies.