Why Do Some Plants Not Require Sunlight?

In school, you have probably been taught about photosynthesis. It is the process where most plants use sunlight to create their own food. But wait, does this mean that some plants do not use sunlight to fuel their growth? That’s correct! Today, let’s explore why some plants can survive without the sun.

A parasite is an organism that relies on another organism for survival. Examples of parasites include ticks, fleas, hookworms, and vampire bats. These parasites obtain their energy by taking food from their hosts. While some parasites live on the exterior of their hosts, others reside inside the body of the supporting organism.

Ectoparasites are parasites that live on the outside of other species. They usually do not cause disease or harm their hosts. However, some ectoparasites can carry and spread diseases, and in some cases, they can cause long-term damage and death. A well-known example is mosquitoes, which can transmit diseases through their bites.

Endoparasites, on the other hand, live inside their hosts. Some endoparasites, like bacteria and viruses, are so small that they can even reside within the host’s cells. Others, such as pinworms and tapeworms, are larger but still live inside their hosts.

So, what do parasites have to do with plants? Well, plants can also be parasites! Some plants obtain their food and energy from other plants. These plants are known as parasitic plants and do not necessarily rely on sunlight to survive. It is estimated that approximately 1% of flowering plants are parasites.

There are two types of parasitic plants. Partially parasitic plants, such as mistletoe, obtain water and food from other plants. They also perform some photosynthesis to support themselves. These plants have leaves and some green color. To live off other organisms, mistletoe and similar plants use specialized structures called haustoria.

Haustoria are similar to roots or stems and allow parasites to penetrate their hosts. Once inside, the haustoria work together with the host to redirect water and nutrients.

Holoparasites, on the other hand, have very little or no chlorophyll. As a result, they cannot carry out photosynthesis to sustain themselves. These plants may appear unusual, with some, like the ghost plant, lacking any color. Others, like beech drops, require specific conditions to grow. While all parasitic plants produce flowers, some have tiny or no leaves.

Dodder is an example of a holoparasite that can easily spread and rely on various other plants for survival. It has become a threat to certain food crops due to its widespread distribution. While many parasitic plants cause minor harm to their hosts, dodder can actually kill its host.

One particularly unique parasitic plant is the corpse flower, also known as giant padma or corpse lily. This plant grows inside the stems of a specific vine in Sumatra and Indonesia. When it is time to bloom, the corpse flower emerges from the stems. It is the largest flower in the world, weighing up to 15 pounds! When the flower blooms, it releases a foul odor resembling rotting meat. This scent attracts insects that aid in pollination.

Have you ever encountered any of these unusual plant parasites while outside? What role do you think parasites and their hosts play in the environment?

Give It a Try

If you are interested in learning more about the intriguing world of parasites, here are a few activities to engage in and gain additional knowledge!

  • Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a parasite? Have you ever thought about what kind of organism you would be? If so, you can try playing the Build a Parasite game from the National Museums Scotland. While playing, use your art materials to draw the parasite that you imagine and create. After receiving your response from the game, do some research to see how accurate you were compared to the game’s answer. Finally, share your drawing and research with a friend or family member.
  • Ticks, lice, and fleas are all examples of parasites. Ask a trusted family member to take you to the library and read about these parasites. Find out where they live and what types of hosts they use. Then, create a chart using a Canva template or your own art materials to compare and contrast the parasites you studied. Make sure to share your findings with your friends and family!
  • Parasitic plants like dodder can grow rapidly and cause significant damage to useful plants and crops. Thankfully, there are ways to control most harmful parasitic plants. But what if there weren’t? Write a creative story about a parasite that is out of control. Consider the harmful actions it takes and whether it has any positive effects. Also, think about how plants and animals adapt to address this threat. Finally, read your story to your family and friends and discuss your thoughts.

Sources of Wonder

  • https://www.britannica.com/dictionary (accessed 7 Apr., 2023)
  • https://www.kew.org/plants/rafflesia-arnoldii (accessed 16 Mar., 2023)
  • https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/plant-problems/environmental/holoparasitic-plants.htm (accessed 16 Mar., 2023)
  • https://www.britannica.com/science/parasitism (accessed 16 Mar., 2023)
  • https://cortland.edu/waldbauer-trail/8-non-photosynthetic-plants.html#:~:text=Some%20plants%20are%20non%2Dphotosynthetic,and%20extract%20water%20and%20nutrients. (accessed 16 Mar., 2023)
  • https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/parasitic-plants.html (accessed 16 Mar., 2023)


1. Why do some plants not need sunlight?

Some plants do not need sunlight because they have adapted to survive in low-light environments. These plants, known as shade-tolerant or shade-loving plants, have the ability to photosynthesize using alternative sources of light, such as artificial light or the dim light available in shady areas. They have specialized pigments called chlorophylls that can capture and utilize the limited light available efficiently. These plants also have larger leaves or more chloroplasts per cell to maximize light absorption. Additionally, some plants have symbiotic relationships with fungi that help them obtain nutrients in low-light conditions, further enhancing their ability to survive without direct sunlight.

2. How do shade-tolerant plants adapt to low-light environments?

Shade-tolerant plants have several adaptations that allow them to thrive in low-light environments. They often have larger leaves with a larger surface area to capture more light. Some plants have thinner leaves that allow light to penetrate deeper into the chloroplasts. They may also have specialized pigments, such as anthocyanins, which absorb a wider range of light wavelengths, including those found in low-light conditions. These plants may also have a higher chlorophyll content or more chloroplasts per cell to maximize their photosynthetic capabilities. Additionally, shade-tolerant plants may have a slower growth rate and allocate more resources to root development, allowing them to access nutrients more efficiently.

3. Can shade-tolerant plants survive in complete darkness?

No, shade-tolerant plants cannot survive in complete darkness. While they have adaptations that enable them to survive in low-light conditions, they still require at least some amount of light for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert light energy into chemical energy to fuel their growth and survival. Without light, plants cannot produce the necessary sugars and nutrients for their metabolic processes. However, shade-tolerant plants are better equipped to survive in areas with limited light compared to sun-loving plants, as they have evolved mechanisms to make the most of the available light.

4. What are examples of shade-tolerant plants?

Some examples of shade-tolerant plants include ferns, mosses, certain species of ivy, hostas, and many types of understory plants found in forests. These plants are adapted to grow and thrive in the shade provided by taller trees and shrubs. They have specific characteristics, such as larger leaves, thinner leaf structures, and the ability to efficiently capture and utilize the limited light available in shaded areas. Shade-tolerant plants are an essential component of forest ecosystems, as they play a crucial role in the understory layer and provide habitat and food sources for various organisms.

5. Can shade-tolerant plants be grown indoors?

Yes, shade-tolerant plants can be grown indoors. Many shade-tolerant plant species are commonly grown as houseplants or in indoor gardens. These plants are well-suited for indoor environments because they can thrive in low-light conditions, such as those found in homes or offices with limited access to natural sunlight. Examples of shade-tolerant houseplants include snake plants, pothos, ZZ plants, and peace lilies. When growing shade-tolerant plants indoors, it is important to provide them with adequate artificial light sources, such as fluorescent or LED grow lights, to ensure they receive the necessary light energy for photosynthesis and proper growth.

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