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Pinesap – an intriguing American and British native

Pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys, Monotropa hypopithys. Image ©
Pottering about in the woods, looking at the downed trees from the hurricane, I came across this little clump of Pinsesap, Monotropa hypopitys. It’s not a rare plant, but I’d never spotted it near the house before. The name, Pinsesap, is said to be derived from the fact that it grows under pine trees and saps its juices. It grows in Britain, too, where its common name is, rather mysteriously, Yellow Bird’s-nest.

Like the entirely white Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, which we have in the garden as well as the woods, Pinesap has no chlorophyll and was always thought to be a saprophyte – getting its nutrients from rotting leaf litter. It was also usually placed in its own family, Monotropaceae.

But the world of the pinesap has been turned upside down! Well, no, the pinesap carries on as it has for thousands of years. It's our understanding of pinesap that has changed dramatically.

First of all, it turns out that rather than using rotting woodland leaf litter for its nutrients, it’s actually parasitic on a group of woodland fungi. Also, the latest thinking is that it belongs, rather surprisingly, in the Erica family with rhododendrons and heathers. Finally, there are some who believe that it needs separating from the Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, into a genus of its own. The genus Hypopitys has been created for it – and in that case what would its new name be? Instead of Monotropa hypopitys it would then be called - Hypopitys monotropa! Oh, those botanists like a joke...

Oh, and there’s another odd thing about the North American form of this plant. It comes in a yellow version that flowers in summer, and also the reddish version seen in the picture (above, click to enlarge) that flowers in the fall.

Anyway, it’s good to have such an intriguing plant turn up in our local woods.