Most plants require some amount of sunlight, water, and basic nutrition, but many require a bit of extra assistance from soil fungi. Upper Ridge Trail is home to some notable examples of plants that rely on these fungal relationships— Blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) and Pink Lady Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium acaule). The whole Blueberry family (Ericaceae) has a special association with a fungus called ericoid mycorrhizae— the fungus provides minerals and water to the plant and receives sugar products from photosynthesis in return. This enables the plant to be more tolerant of nutrient-poor soils and droughts. Slipper orchids, like many other orchids, require fungal colonization for the seed to germinate at all. This is one reason why transplanting Cypripedium is almost impossible; they are highly reliant on the specific soil biochemistry and pH maintained by their fungal soil partners.
An abundance of soil mycorrhizae can be an indicator of ecosystem health. The presence of the Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is one way to visualize robust mycorrhizal soils. This pale white flower may look like a fungus, but is actually a parasitic plant that no longer needs to make leaves or chlorophyll (plants’ green photosynthesizing pigment). Ghost pipes receive all of their nutrients and sugars from neighboring trees via their root mycorrhizae. See if you can spot them from June-September along the nature trails.