Meet the pennywort gentian (Obolaria virginica). It is a plant of the southeast with its most northerly distribution being around Pennsylvania. I am a little obsessed with gentians so finding this plant is always a special treat. My first encounter left me a bit perplexed by its overall appearance, which is very compact. The leaves and flowers all seemed to be mashed together, competing for space.
Its small stature and dark coloration cause it to blend in surprisingly well with the forest floor. You often don't see it until you are right on top of one. Something seems to be working well for the Virginia pennywort because once you find one, you usually find many more. Oddly enough, I most frequently see this species in its highest abundance on the side of well-trafficked trails. Add to that its highly reduced leaf area and you have a few traits that usually get me thinking about parasitic plants. Anecdotally speaking, I quite often find parasites near foot traffic. If I had to guess, I would say that it has something to do with root damage, however, I have no data to support such claims. That being said, the literature suggests I wasn't wrong in my suspicions.
The roots of the Virginia pennywort are described as "coralloid", meaning they take on a structure reminiscent of some corals. This is usually a trait exhibited by species whose roots are closely associated with microbes such as cyanobacteria or certain fungi. Indeed, the roots of the Virginia pennywort are often infested with arbuscular mycorrhizae. Additionally, there is some molecular evidence to suggest that this species is at least partially mycoheterotrophic, meaning it gets some at least some of its nutrients parasitically from said mycorrhizal fungi. Isotope analysis demonstrated that the tissues of the Virginia pennywort were more enriched with isotopes of nitrogen than the surrounding vegetation.
It is a really neat plant to find. If you do, make sure to take some time with it and get down on its level for a closer look. You won't be disappointed!