Hiltje Maas-van de Kamer and Prof. Dr. Paul J. M. Maas are working on a wide array of plant families, of which we here focus on those with achlorphyllous, saprophytic representatives. Have a look on some slides!
Hiltje Maas digging for saprophytes
Picture of Hiltje Maas Hiltje Maas-van de Kamer
Paul J. M. Maas

Nationaal Herbarium Nederland, Wageningen University branch
Biosystematics Group
Wageningen University
Generaal Foulkesweg 37
6703 BL Wageningen

Tel.: ++31-(0)317 484 641

Email: paul.maas@wur.nl

In 1986 three monographs were published dealing with saprophytic plants from tropical America:

These three monographs were the result of extensive studies based on almost all dried specimens exsisting in herbaria, and on many collecting trips to the Neotropics. The work has been carried out by my husband, Paul Maas, and his students and other collaborators. At the moment I, Hiltje Maas, am officially responsable for the saprophytes.
As a result the Utrecht herbarium stores a large collection of dried specimens, specimens preserved in spirit, colour slides, and literature of 'saps'. Anyone interested can visit Utrecht to study the collection.

Hexapterella gentianoides

By the way, what actually are 'saprophytes'?

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/selfsupporting, 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.
For more information on structure and potential function of MHP-mycorrhizae please consult Stephan's Homepage or his publicationlist with abstracts.

Here are some pictures of these strange plants. Click the images to get a close up!
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Burmannia tenella Burmannia bicolor Campylosiphon purpurascens
Burmannia tenella
Maas & Westra 4188; Guyana
Burmannia bicolor
Maas & Westra s.n.; Guyana
Campylosiphon purpurascens
Maas 6755; Brazil
Dictyostega orobanchoides Gymnosiphon spec. Hexapterella gentianoides
Dictyostega orobanchoides
Maas & Westra 4149; Guyana
Gymnosiphon spec.
Maas et al. 5538; Guyana
Hexapterella gentianoides
Maas & Westra 4480; Trinidad
Sciaphila albescens Triuris hexophthalma, male flower Triuris hexophthalma, female flower
Sciaphila albescens
Maas & Westra 3961; Guyana
Triuris hexophthalma, male flower
Maas & Westra 2595; Guyana
Triuris hexophthalma, female flower
Maas & Westra 2595; Guyana
Thismia panamensis Voyria tenella Voyriella parviflora
Thismia panamensis
Maas 2695; Panama
Voyria tenella
Mori 18919; French Guyana
Voyriella parviflora
Maas et al. 2525; Guyana

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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:

In general: take some time to have a good look at the plants when you find them: they deserve it!

Last revised on 28 August 2003 by Stephan Imhof
Text by Hiltje Maas, Photographs by Paul Maas