Heterotrophic Plants

Some plants cannot produce their own food and must obtain their nutrition from outside sources—these plants are heterotrophic. This may occur with plants that are parasitic or saprophytic. Some plants are mutualistic symbionts, epiphytes, or insectivorous.

Plant Parasites

Photo shows a beige vine with small white flowers. The vine is wrapped around a woody stem of a plant with green leaves.

Figure 1. The dodder is a holoparasite that penetrates the host’s vascular tissue and diverts nutrients for its own growth. Note that the vines of the dodder, which has white flowers, are beige. The dodder has no chlorophyll and cannot produce its own food. (credit: “Lalithamba”/Flickr)

A parasitic plant depends on its host for survival. Some parasitic plants have no leaves. An example of this is the dodder (Figure 1), which has a weak, cylindrical stem that coils around the host and forms suckers. From these suckers, cells invade the host stem and grow to connect with the vascular bundles of the host. The parasitic plant obtains water and nutrients through these connections. The plant is a total parasite (a holoparasite) because it is completely dependent on its host. Other parasitic plants (hemiparasites) are fully photosynthetic and only use the host for water and minerals. There are about 4,100 species of parasitic plants.

Saprophytes

A saprophyte is a plant that does not have chlorophyll and gets its food from dead matter, similar to bacteria and fungi (note that fungi are often called saprophytes, which is incorrect, because fungi are not plants). Plants like these use enzymes to convert organic food materials into simpler forms from which they can absorb nutrients (Figure 2). Most saprophytes do not directly digest dead matter: instead, they parasitize fungi that digest dead matter, or are mycorrhizal, ultimately obtaining photosynthate from a fungus that derived photosynthate from its host. Saprophytic plants are uncommon; only a few species are described.

Photo shows a plant with light pink stems reminiscent of asparagus. Bud-like appendages grow from the tips of the stems.

Figure 2. Saprophytes, like this Dutchmen’s pipe (Monotropa hypopitys), obtain their food from dead matter and do not have chlorophyll. (credit: modification of work by Iwona Erskine-Kellie)

Symbionts

A symbiont is a plant in a symbiotic relationship, with special adaptations such as mycorrhizae or nodule formation. Fungi also form symbiotic associations with cyanobacteria and green algae (called lichens). Lichens can sometimes be seen as colorful growths on the surface of rocks and trees (Figure 3a). The algal partner (phycobiont) makes food autotrophically, some of which it shares with the fungus; the fungal partner (mycobiont) absorbs water and minerals from the environment, which are made available to the green alga. If one partner was separated from the other, they would both die.

Epiphytes

An epiphyte is a plant that grows on other plants, but is not dependent upon the other plant for nutrition (Figure 3b). Epiphytes have two types of roots: clinging aerial roots, which absorb nutrients from humus that accumulates in the crevices of trees; and aerial roots, which absorb moisture from the atmosphere.

Photo (a) shows a tall pine tree covered with green lichen. Photo (b) shows a tree trunk covered with epiphytes, which look like ferns growing on the trunk of a tree. There are so many epiphytes the trunk is nearly obscured.

Figure 3. (a) Lichens, which often have symbiotic relationships with other plants, can sometimes be found growing on trees. (b)These epiphyte plants grow in the main greenhouse of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. (credit: a “benketaro”/Flickr)

Insectivorous Plants

Photo shows a Venus flytrap. Pairs of modified leaves of this plant have the appearance of a mouth. White, hair-like appendages at the opening of the mouth have the appearance of teeth. The mouth can close on unwary insects, trapping them in the teeth.

Figure 5. A Venus flytrap has specialized leaves to trap insects. (credit: “Selena N. B. H.”/Flickr)

An insectivorous plant has specialized leaves to attract and digest insects. The Venus flytrap is popularly known for its insectivorous mode of nutrition, and has leaves that work as traps (Figure 5).

The minerals it obtains from prey compensate for those lacking in the boggy (low pH) soil of its native North Carolina coastal plains. There are three sensitive hairs in the center of each half of each leaf. The edges of each leaf are covered with long spines. Nectar secreted by the plant attracts flies to the leaf. When a fly touches the sensory hairs, the leaf immediately closes. Next, fluids and enzymes break down the prey and minerals are absorbed by the leaf. Since this plant is popular in the horticultural trade, it is threatened in its original habitat.