Beech Drops and Bedrooms

800px-Epifagus_virginiana_2For two of my children, sharing a bedroom is a source of constant contention. Attempts to maintain peace—including a line of tape down the center of the room and a “rules and regulation” sign tacked to the door—have been short-lived. They wait with ill-concealed anticipation for their older sister to leave for college and vacate a bedroom.

While cohabitation can prove problematic in the human world, examples of two species successfully sharing space are common in nature. Meander along the Tuckahoe Creekside Walk, and you may spy a scattering of beech drops on the forest floor. These less-than-showy brown annuals are one of the roughly one percent of plant species that do not produce their own carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Completely lacking chlorophyll, beech drops subsist on nutrients siphoned from the roots of the American beech tree.

Beech drops are fall ephemerals, appearing only briefly to flower. The rest of the year is spent underground, firmly attached to the beech tree’s roots. Beech drops do not seem to harm their hosts, making them an example of commensal symbiosis, in which one species benefits while the other is neither helped nor harmed.

Going on a treasure hunt for beech drops and other similarly intriguing plants is a wonderful way to engage children in the outdoors. With luck, the serenity of nature will follow them home. At least for a little while.

by Jenny Houghton
Assistant Director

Photo credit: By Eric Hunt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 

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