Heterotrophic plants: definition and examples

Did you know that the largest flower in the world cannot produce its own food? Or that there are white plants? This is because they are heterotrophic plants.

In the reverse kingdom of the plant world, there are plants that are totally or partially characterized by being unable to feed themselves. Some don’t photosynthesize and don’t even have chlorophyll.

Here we will specify the definition and examples of heterotrophic plantssome very particular living beings.

White mistletoe: although it is capable of photosynthesis, it feeds on the sap of the branches of the host tree

Heterotrophic and autotrophic plants

heterotroph or autotroph are the two ways of naming the nutritional mechanisms of animals and plants. In this way, organisms can be subdivided into producers and consumers.

An organism is autotroph, that is, producer, when he has the ability to create his own food. In other words, it can generate the chemical energy it needs to live through internal processing, using inorganic components. This is basically what photosynthesis is all about. The rule is then, as we learn in school, that vegetables are autotrophic organisms.

Secondly, most of the beings that belong to the animal kingdom are heterotrophs, or consumers, since they need to feed on other living beings to produce energy and live. How they process it depends on the complexity of the animal or organism in question. Human beings, for example, are heterotrophs.

However, like everything in life, there are animals and plants that break -even a little- the rules.

Within the autotrophs, there are bacteria that are capable of photosynthesis, while within the heterotrophs, there are a few small exceptions made up of certain plants.

The heterotrophic plantsare those that, against the current of their vegetable sisters, they are unable to produce their own food and must acquire it from other living organisms.

They cannot do photosynthesis, because in their evolution, the living of other beings has made them “lazy” for this. And basically some of them don’t need it.

If you are looking for the best plants for your balcony, this may not be the best option.

Heterotrophic plants feed on other plants and fungi to survive, so they are parasitic. Their structure is simpler than the rest of the plants and they generally do not have leaves, or if they do, they are stunted and do not have chlorophyll.

To feed, they have developed an adapted root system, which allows them to penetrate the roots of other plants and thus get hold of the sap already produced by them. However, very few plants are exclusively heterotrophic, some combine parasitism or “insect eating” with photosynthesis.

Carnivorous plants, for example, feed on insects and other arthropods. Basically they capture and break them down with enzymes or digestive bacteria and thus get their food. Nevertheless, these plants are not purely heterotrophic, since, with few exceptions, they need a lot of sunlight.

Some carnivorous plants are very interesting and beautiful to grow at home, perhaps they can be an interesting option to catch insects if you have or are thinking of having an agroecological garden at home.

Heterotrophic plants: examples

These vegetables have strange and striking shapes, also unusual colors due to its lack of chlorophyll. Many have a single huge bloom. Here are some striking examples of these plants that look like something out of a psychedelic movie.

Giant hoop or bunga bangkai:

It is usually called ”the biggest flower in the world” by the peculiar and gigantic influorescence that it presents. It can be up to three meters tall!

It is native to the forests of Sumatra, Indonesia. Its native name means “corpse flower” and it is called this way because it gives off a disgusting aroma of rotting meat, which makes it quite difficult to be near it. This is one adaptation to attract pollinating insects, especially those that feed on decomposing bodies.

It is considered a vulnerable species as the forests of Sumatra are highly affected by deforestation.

The giant ring or corpse flower: an endangered species due to the deforestation of Sumatran forests

bird’s nest

The Neottia nidus-avis or bird’s nest is a type of heterotrophic orchid. It has a brown color, sometimes even white, due to the absence of chlorophyll. Unlike what happens with many heterotrophs, This plant has a multiple flowering and is named for the shape of its rhizome.

It lives in the forest, in lands rich in humus, where it associates with a soil fungus that is responsible for assimilating decomposing organic matter, turning it into food for both. We can find it especially in the easternmost part of Catalonia, Spain.

Bird’s nest, a very particular orchid

And you, do you know any other heterotrophic plant?