Saprophytic plants, literally, are plants that live of rotting material (sapros = rotting, and phyton = plant in Greek), but in fact, no plant have been found yet which can use dead organic material for food directly.
Anyway, these plants have no chlorophyll in their cells, which means they are unable to assimilate carbon by themselves. They have no green leaves, often they even have no leaves at all. Saprophytes are mostly whitish, but can have brightly coloured flowers. They grow in places with lots of rotting dead leaves, often in deep shade in tropical forests.
In their underground parts (rhizomes or roots) are certain cells that are filled with structures (hyphae) of soil fungi. Often, but not always, these fungi are capable of ‘digesting’ the rotting material and converting it by enzymes into molecules (sugar) which they can feed on. So, the fungi are the real saprophytes, living of rotting material. Now, the plants without chlorophyll digest the fungus that live inside their roots or rhizomes, thus they are not autotrophic/self supporting, but heterotrophic plants (hetero = another, trophein = feed). And because they are living on fungi they are called myco-heterotrophic plants / MHP’s (mycos = fungus). This mycorrhiza (mycos = fungus, rhizon = root) of MHP’s makes it possible for them to grow in places with not enough light for ordinary autotrophic plants to survive. The same might be the case for places without enough nutrients in the soil.
To complicate matters there is evidence that some fungi neither are saprophytes but have underground connections with big forest trees or other autotrophic plants. So the trees, the fungi, and the myco-heterotrophic plants all three together form a kind of plant community, a symbiosis (living together), to make it possible for the MHP to live. In the special case of MHP’s, the linking fungus delivers the assimilated carbon from the autotrophic plant to the myco-heterotrophic plant.
We are still very much interested in new collections of saps, and we are always willing to identify them.
Our knowledge about saprophytes from Africa and Asia is less extensive, but we are interested to study them as well (especially in the genus Thismia).
Here some hints, how to collect saprophytes:
- If you find one it is likely that there are more, since circumstances seem to be favorable for this mode of life.
- Most important is to preserve specimens in spirit (roots, buds, flowers, fruits).
- Do not forget to collect the root system if possible.
- Look for pollinators, smell, and something about the flower biology
- Make drawings or take colour slides.