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Elephant-head lousewort

Elephant-head lousewort grows in a rocky hillside near Grand Teton National Park. The plant is considered semi-parasitic, which means it has adapted to using photosynthesis but also drawing water and nutrients from surrounding plants. 

Adapting to living in Wyoming, with its frigid winters, high elevations, gale-force winds and summertime droughts can be tricky. Anyone who has tried planting a garden quickly realizes that plants like artichokes and sweet potatoes only grow with constant love and attention and ones like pineapples or avocados just aren’t going to grow outside at all.

But even with our unforgiving seasons, spring and summer usher in a bouquet of wildflowers ready to attract bees and butterflies before fall hits and the cycle starts again.

How do these bursts of pink, yellow, purple and blue make a living in some of the toughest country in the Lower 48? By adapting.

“… It makes sense that there are species of plants that have adapted to use resources from other plants that are much more efficient and/or competitive for resources,” said Brian Sebade, an extension educator at the University of Wyoming.

With this year’s heavy snowfall – a record in places like the northeast and northwest corners – Wyoming’s wildflowers will be out in full, well, bloom.

And while most of us will first notice the beauty in the vibrant colors and unique shapes, also take note of their adaptations, the way they survive, along with the rest of us, on the harsh, high plains.

Pretty parasites

We all learned about photosynthesis in school. It’s how most plants survive. Chlorophyll absorbs energy from the sun and the plant uses it to make food. Except some plants don’t have chlorophyll. In Wyoming, and across much of the West, are plants in a genus called broomrape, or orobanche, that rely entirely on stealing water, energy and nutrients from their neighbors.

They’re essentially vampire plants – sending their roots out to another plant’s roots, digging in and feeding.

“One might even go as far to think about the parasitic genus of Orobanche rising up through the grave,” Sebade said. “When Orobanche species are emerging early in the spring they do not produce leaves like many other plants, but instead send a stem from the roots of an existing plant and push up through the soil surface.”

As a result they’re not green like most plants, but a pale, usually fleshy color.

Broomrape

The broomrape flower is entirely parasitic, which means it does not have chlorophyll and doesn't use photosynthesis to make food. Instead it leaches everything it needs from neighboring plants.

Broomrape often grows on fringe sage, a type of sage brush common across Wyoming’s high plains, said Dorothy Tuthill, associate director of UW’s Biodiversity Institute.

It’s generally about 4 inches tall with white or light pink stalks and multiple bell-shaped flowers. It can also grow in clumps.

Mistletoe is another parasitic plant, living on the branches of pine trees and tapping into food and energy under the tree’s bark. In the spring it produces tiny flowers and sticky seeds that attract insects, said Tuthill, which then fly away with seeds attached and thus spread to other areas of the forest.

Dwarf mistletoe

A mistletoe grows from a lodgepole pine. The plant can, at times, kill its host tree by removing nutrients from under the tree's bark.

Unlike mistletoe, which can severely impair its host plant and sometimes even kill it, broomrape generally does not kill its host, Sebade said.

Find mistletoe throughout Wyoming’s forests, and look for one of the handful of species in the broomrape family in the state’s high sage brush steppe.

Help from neighbors

For a plant that’s so ubiquitous in Wyoming it became our official state flower, the Indian paintbrush is surprisingly hard to actually cultivate.

Jenny Thompson should know.

“It has a reputation in horticultural circles to be hard to grow, and it can be challenging,” said Thompson, the small acreage outreach coordinator at UW’s extension office. “It is one of those plants that is semi-parasitic, so it needs an attachment to another plant’s root systems.”

Indian paintbrush

Wyoming Indian paintbrush has adapted to the state's harsh climate by being semi-parasitic.

That’s why you won’t see it for sale at nurseries or garden shops. If you separate it from its host plant, it will likely die.

The lousewort is similar. Elephant-head lousewort, which has flowers that look surprisingly similar to an elephant’s ears and trunk, uses photosynthesis for nutrition but also draws food and water from neighboring plants.

Why, exactly, the plants decided to latch onto a neighbor’s root systems instead of seeking nutrition for itself is left up to educated guesses, Sebade said.

“The theory would be that sage brush or some of the desert plants are pretty competitive for water and nutrients in systems that are lacking in water and nutrients,” he said. “So maybe it’s a better strategy instead of developing your own systems to latch onto someone else’s.”

Feeding on the dead

Coralroot orchids might be beautiful, but their life cycle doesn’t sound all that pretty.

They’re called saprophytes, which means they feed off of fungi living on the roots of other plants. They’re not parasitic in the way a broomrape is – by sucking nutrients straight from another plant – but they do make use of the photosynthesizing happening in the neighboring plants, Tuthill said.

“They’re not green because they’re not photosynthesizing either. They pop up on the forest floor in the middle of the summer and flower and produce seeds,” she said.

Pinedrops

Pinedrops, Pterospora andromedea, is considered a saprophyte and can be found throughout most of Wyoming's forests.

Coralroots, a genus in the orchid family, is known for its dainty flowers and long, light pink stems. They’re often associated with conifer-root fungi, and can be found in dark, dank places because they simply don’t need the sunshine.

And like many of the other flowers across the state, they should be out in force this year as the snow melts and temperatures rise.

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