Friday, July 24, 2015

Crested Coralroot

This past Wednesday I made the trip out to Adams County in southern Ohio. Now, those of you who know me probably know I have a slight obsession with Adams County, but it's for good reason! This place is a biological hotspot of diversity, rarities, prairies, and more.

Lynx Prairie Ohio
My main reason for going was to see the ever-amazing Lynx Prairie, which I've previously wrote about here. Late July/Early August is prime time in the prairies of Ohio; many of the wildflower species bloom in this part of the summer, making for incredible displays of color among the green grasses. For some examples of the flowers blooming right now in the Adams Co. prairies, check out my previous post here. When it comes to Ohio prairies, Lynx is by far my favorite. It is an incredible system of pocket prairies that is definitely worth exploring!

Crested Coralroot Ohio
I arrived at Lynx Prairie at a perfect time. In the second prairie opening I saw two people looking down at a plant. We had our greetings and I asked them if they had seen anything interesting while there. They pointed me to the plant they were looking at: a beautiful specimen of Crested Coralroot, a species of orchid. (Imagine that, more orchids!) This is an orchid that I've been wanting to see for a long time, and I was beyond ecstatic to finally get the chance to see one. The couple told me that there were more scattered about the preserve and to keep an eye out for them. As I later found out, it turns out the people that showed me the orchid were none other than Deb Marsh and her husband. You might know Deb Marsh as the blogger at Around the Bend, another nature-based Ohio blog, which I've been following for the past couple of years. It's always great to meet another blogger out in the field!

Crested Coralroot Flowers
Crested Coralroot, Hexalectris spicata, is a unique plant. It lacks chlorophyll, giving it a haunting pale color that stands out against the vibrant greens of the prairie and forest edge. As you might know, chlorophyll is necessary for a plant to produce food. If it lacks chlorophyll, then how does it get food? The answer lies in the roots. Crested Coralroots (as well as all orchids at some point during their life cycle) are myco-heterotrophs. Myco-heterotrophy is a symbiotic relationship between a plant and fungus. It's a complex system of energy exchange, with the Crested Coralroot ultimately being a parasite. I'll explain the process below!

Crested Coralroot Flower
Many plants form a relationship with fungus. For the vast majority, this relationship is mutualistic, meaning both the plant and fungus benefit. What happens is that a fungus will colonize the roots of a plant. The plant will then give the fungus carbohydrates for the fungus to live and prosper. This causes the fungus to grow in size, creating more surface area. The plant benefits from this increase in surface area, as its fungus-colonized root system can now absorb more water and nutrients. This creates what is called a mycorrhizal network. Now, in comes the Crested Coralroot. This orchid "cheats" the system. The orchid will essentially send its roots to tap into the mycorrhizal network. From there, it actually steals the carbohydrates from the fungus. Essentially, the Crested Coralroot steals food from another plant, while using the mycorrhizal fungus as a middle-man. It's pretty amazing to think about all of the complex craziness that occurs down in the soil. We're taught from a young age a very simplistic way of how plants grow, get nutrients, and make food. The reality is much, much more complex than how most of us view it.

Crested Coralroot
The foot-tall Crested Coralroot stands out against the greenery, creating a striking scene.
Crested Coralroot is a rare plant in Ohio. In fact, it is state-listed as Potentially Threatened. There's only three counties that it can currently be found in here in Ohio (Adams, Scioto, and Lawrence). Crested Coralroot only comes above ground to flower and produce seeds; however, an individual does not do this every year. They will only send up a flowering stalk every few years. As a result, during some years a location might not have any flowering individuals, while other years might have dozens. Crested Coralroot tends to bloom in large numbers during wet summers. The extremely wet summer we're currently in has made for an amazing year when it comes to fungi and many plant species, and Crested Coralroot is no exception. In fact, we counted 10 individuals easily at the site, and we probably missed many more. If you want to see one, I highly suggest going this year. From what I've read, Lynx Prairie and parts of Shawnee State Forest are the two easiest places to find this orchid.

I'm also proud to announce that my blog recently surpassed 50,000 views! I just want to thank everyone for their support, and for reading!

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