Featured plant: Gnome plant

This post is by Jocie Brooks, leader of the Botany Group, from an email to members of the group on April 20.

Joy recently sent in a photo of a gnome plant from the Maple Lake area near Cumberland. This unusual and exotic looking plant is one we should look out for, and is a great topic for this week’s feature! In addition to Joy’s photo I’m including a photo of gnomes that I saw with Mandy Vaughan a few years ago on a hike up Crest Mountain (Strathcona Park) in July.

Gnome Plant (Hemitomes congestum)

General Notes:

Gnome plant has a cone-like head of shrimp-pink or whitish flowers that grow close to the ground. It looks strangely alien as it erupts from the forest duff, sometimes looking like a blackened cauliflower when it first emerges. Clark describes it as a “gnome-like dweller of the shaded woods.”

Taxonomic Details:

In the Heather Family, or Ericaceae, gnome plant is monotypic, the only member of its genus in the world. The genus name Hemitomes comes from the Greek words “hemi,” half, and “tomes,” sterile or eunuch, in reference to the fact that often half of the anther (male) cells are sterile. The species name congestum refers to the tightly packed head of flowers.

What the heck is a mycoheterotroph?

Like Indian pipe, pine sap, pinedrops, candy stick and coralroot orchids, gnome plant lacks chlorophyll, and can therefore not carry out photosynthesis.

It was originally thought that such plants fed off dead and decomposing plant matter (saprophytes). Further study revealed that they get nutrients directly from fungi. “Mycoheterotroph” means “fungus-feeding” referring to the fact that these plants depend on fungi. These fungi in turn get their food from mycorrhizal connections with tree roots.

Gnome plant has a special association with the blood fungusHydnellum peckiiBlood fungus has mycorrhizal associations with conifers.

Where to find it/range:

Gnome plant is typically found in coniferous forests at mid-elevation and blooms in the late spring and summer. It is limited to the Pacific Northwest and is not found outside of North America. In BC, there is a disjunct population near Terrace.

References: Plants of Coastal BC (Pojar & MacKinnon), Flowers of the Pacific Northwest (Lewis Clark), Botany Photo of the Day (UBC, Daniel Mosquin), Ericaceae of the PNW Park V (Wilbur Bluhm).

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