Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ghost Pipe Plant

All gardeners have bucket lists - plants they'd love to grow, gardens they want to visit, plants they want to see.  I was excited to be able to check one of my bucket items off the list this week.  While walking near some woods, I spotted a plant I had always wanted to see since first hearing about it: the Ghost Pipe Plant!

Ghost Pipe Plant
The Ghost Pipe Plant (Monotropa uniflora), aka Indian Pipe or Corpse Plant, is a perennial wildflower that is native to parts of North America and areas of Asia, European Russia, and northern South America.  This tiny plant is fascinating in that it doesn't contain any chlorophyll.  It is usually completely white, but will sometimes have some pink or even red coloration.


Instead of getting energy from the sun, the Ghost Pipe plant is parasitic.  It grows on types of mycorrhizal fungi which in turn grow on tree roots.  The mycorrhizal fungi, which usually grows on leaf litter, gives nutrients and water to the tree roots in return for sugars from the tree.  The parasitic Ghost Pipe steals some of these sugars from the fungi.  It's quite a complex relationship, which is why these plants are somewhat of a rare and delightful find!  They are pretty much impossible to transplant or propagate.

emerging Ghost Pipe plants
Because it does not need the sun, Ghost Pipe can grow in deep shade.  It is mostly found in damp, rich, mature woodlands, which is the type of place that I found this colony of Ghost Pipe plants growing.


Like its botanical name Monotropa uniflora suggests, each stem just has one flower which blooms for a week or two anytime from late spring to fall.  The flower is pollinated by small bees, after which the flower turns upwards and is then replaced by a seed capsule.  The stem turns black and dies off, but the perennial root mass will live to bloom the next year.


Ghost Pipe was used medicinally by some Native Americans tribes as an anti-convulsive and an analgesic, as well as to treat conditions such as eye problems, bunions, and fevers.  It is still occasionally used by herbalists, unfortunately leading to over-harvesting in some cases, making this plant even rarer.   Interestingly, grizzly bears have been known to dig up the root mass to eat it.  While raw Ghost Pipe is mildly toxic for people, it is said to be edible (though bland) in small to moderate amounts.  When cooked, it is said to taste rather like asparagus, though I would not recommend picking this plant at all.  Rather I would advise leaving these tiny wildflowers undisturbed so that more people can have the fun of spotting such an unusual plant. 


I know I got a thrill out of it!


18 comments:

  1. Very interesting! I had never heard of or seen this strange plant. Thanks for letting us know about it! Hope you are well this summer, -Beth

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    1. It's a pretty cool plant! I didn't expect to stumble upon it not too far from where I live. All is well, hope you are having a good summer!

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  2. Very cool, and a little creepy.

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    1. After it is pollinated, it starts to turn black and apparently looks even creepier then. That's how it got its nickname of 'Corpse Plant'!

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  3. You are so lucky! I also have a wildflower bucket list, this one I gave up on even though it is said it grows in Florida as well. But our 'forests' are scary so I do not dare to look for this rare jewel. Thank you for sharing your find :-)

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    1. Yeah, I wouldn't venture into your forests down there either! These Ghost Pipe plants were actually right next to a paved and well-traveled walking path near a wooded area, though. I really hope nobody goes off the path and tramples them!

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  4. Strange and a bit creepy. Zombie flowers.

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    1. They are weird looking, especially as they emerge from the ground!

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  5. Such a thrilling sight! I had the pleasure of seeing some in person once and will never forget it.

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    1. It was so cool to see it, especially as I was not expecting to see such a plant where I was walking - they were growing next to a paved and well-traveled path!

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  6. It was so interesting to find your article on this plant. We had moved to Southwest Michigan last year and maybe a week ago I was walking down one of our Trails on our property and I found quite a few clumps of this plant and I was super excited because I had not realized it would be in our woods. Great article.

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    1. That's awesome that they are growing on your property! How fun!

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  7. It's hard to believe it's a plant--it's so white! I think I remember seeing this during a hike in Door County, Wisconsin. So fascinating!

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    1. Yeah, it doesn't really look like it should be a plant. Very cool you got to see one!

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  8. It looks more like a fungus than a plant. I've never seen anything quite like it. Really interesting.

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    1. Where it was growing there were also some mushrooms around, so sometimes I had to look closely to see if it was a mushroom or a ghost pipe plant. It sure doesn't look very much like a normal plant!

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  9. Although I had never heard of this plant, your photos were so good that I'm marking it off my bucket list, too.

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