August 14, 2018

The Ghost Plant

By Katie Folts,
Director of Educational Outreach

I’ve been spotting Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) around the gardens recently. This is not a plant that we find in garden beds; it is spotted in the woods, usually under the shade of large conifers. It grows less than a foot tall, often in clumps, with flowers down-turned.  

Also known as Ghost Plant, this unique plant can be completely white, occasionally spotted, but never green. Chlorophyll is lacking in this plant, and as such it is unable to photosynthesize- to make the carbohydrates needed to grow.

So, how does it grow? In the plants small root system are fungi which connect to the trees found growing around the plant. The fungi steal sugars from the trees, and the plant, in turn, steals sugars from the fungi. My use of the word ‘steal’ is neither scientific nor does it reflect my affection for this plant.

I am always excited to see this ephemeral plant, and having lived in many regions of the United States, I was happy to find it in most places I went. Its range is throughout much of North America and parts of Asia.

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