Friday, October 17, 2014

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Niagara County’s strangest wildflowers

In elementary school everyone is taught that all plants are photosynthetic and get their sustenance from the sun and that in itself is what distinguishes plants from fungi and other organisms.

That’s not really correct.

Most all plants do contain chlorophyll — but, not all of them. There is a very small minority of plants that don’t; of the 315,000 species of plants worldwide, 3,000 fall in that category.

These plants, called saprophytes, are incapable of getting their energy from the sun and must get it elsewhere, either from other plants or some sort of symbiotic relationship with another organism.

Often strange looking and lacking the green hues that go hand-in-hand with chlorophyll, they are quite interesting.

Eastern Niagara County is home to 3 woodland saprophytes. We will briefly discuss each of them.

Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe (Photo by Bob Confer)
The Indian pipe can be found growing in dark, rich-soiled woods of the area during the months of August and September.

Almost ghost-white, it is an eerie looking plant with translucent stems and scaly leaves and a solitary flower. As the plant matures and reaches about four to six inches in height, the flower nods, hence the name Indian pipe — it looks just like a smoking pipe!

These plants get their nutrition from a fungus that grows on or around its roots. These fungi conduct their own nutrition of getting food from tree roots. The Indian pipe’s roots ingest that energy directly from the fungus. Since the fungus must make up from the energy lost to the Indian pipe, that makes Indian pipe a parasite.

Indian Pipes are very sensitive and fragile. If you touch them or bruise the plant, the damaged areas will turn black and rot away. So, admire them with your eyes and not your hands – you won’t hurt them that way. They also blacken naturally as the plant matures and dies.


Squawroot (Photo by Bob Confer)
The squawroot is a member of the disturbingly-named family of wildflowers called broomrapes. This plant can be also be found in dark woodlots in the area, always around older oak trees.

Squawroots appear as yellow/tan plants that look almost like upturned pine cones, three to six inches in height.

They typically appear in small clusters of two to as many as 10 plants.

It blooms in July in Niagara County and dies after two or three weeks. The ugly brown remnants will remain in the woods for up to two more months. The plant is a perennial – so don’t pick them. They will come up again next year.

Squawroots get their nourishment from the root systems of oak trees.


Beechdrop (Wikipedia
The beechdrop comes from the same family as squawroots. It can be found in the same dark forests during the months of August, September and October.

Most people would consider their appearance to be unremarkable and won’t notice them in the woods.

They look like very thin brown sticks sticking straight up from the ground and can grow from a half-foot to a foot-and-a-half in height.

If you have a magnifying glass handy while hiking you will see that the small flowers are actually quite exquisite.

Beechdrops, just as their name implies, get their nourishment from the roots of beech trees (they do not harm them in the process). Because of that, you should appreciate them while you can. In 15 years there might never be another beechdrop in Niagara County because, as was mentioned in an earlier installment of Exploring the Niagara Frontier, beech trees are battling a deadly disease that is wiping out whole stands of these beautiful trees across the county.

If you are out in the woods and encounter any of these three plants, take the time to appreciate them. They are interesting in appearance and their very method of existence defies everything you’ve ever thought you knew about flowering plants.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he has to get nutrients from other living organisms because he, too, is not photosynthetic. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 02 October 2014 East Niagara Post

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