Thursday, June 16, 2016

Maryland: Weird and Wonderful - The Ghost Plant

"Maryland: Weird and Wonderful" is a WMD101 series showcasing specific natural phenomena occurring in Maryland that are particularly interesting or unusual.

Called ghost plant, corpse plant, and Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, lives up to its many names. It rises seemingly overnight from the damp forest soil in sparse clusters.  Its pale, translucent flesh and nodding floral heads give it the appearance of both a pipe and a mournful spirit.


  • typically less than a foot tall
  • color ranges from gray to white to pink, often with black spots
  • resembles a smoking pipe, each stem bearing a single, nodding flower
  • begins appearing in June, often during warm, wet weather
  • typically found in forests with beech trees and rotting wood
  • prefers shady, moist conditions

Its waxy, pallid color and lack of identifiable leaves gives it the look of a fungus, but Indian pipe is, in fact, a plant - a very special one!  It does not photosynthesize, hence the lack of green clorophyll and its insignificant leaves.  Instead, it has a complex relationship with both the fungi and the trees in its habitat.

Many trees have a symbiotic, mutualistic relationship with fungi, often "mushroom" fungi.  When they aren't producing mushrooms, these fungi exist as a network of tiny, threadlike structures below the ground.  These mycelia interact with the roots of trees, exchanging nutrients and allowing both to benefit.

A miniature forest of Indian pipes. 
Indian pipe is typically found growing within the mycelia of brittlegill or milk-cap fungi. The plant taps into the fungus's resources, leeching off its nutrients. It is able to absorb nutrients from both the fungus, and from the tree with which the fungus has partnered. In this sense, it is a parasite of the fungus - and indirectly, the tree - and is known as a mycoheterotroph. Its preferred fungi tend to form relationships with the roots of pines and beeches, and therefore, Indian pipes are typically found along the root systems of these trees.

Notice how the Indian pipes follow the roots of this beech tree. 
It's bell-shaped flowers point downward while they wait to be pollinated by passing bumblebees.  This keeps rainwater from filling the heads and depleting the pollen.  Once polinated, the flowerheads darken and point straight up, and the plant forms a dry seed capsule. The seeds are small and may be dispersed by the wind.
This flower has been pollinated and is starting to turn upward. 
Look for Indian pipe in rich, moist forest that has beech and/or pine and plenty of shade. Indian pipes typically first appear in June in Maryland.  They regularly appear in Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County in late spring/early summer.  Be sure to marvel at their ghostly beauty without trying to take them home.  Not only do they do poorly as a picked flower, their complex relationship with the forest community makes them difficult to transplant.  And as always, respect parks and natural areas by leaving nature where you find it.


Botanical Society of America

Faifax County Public Schools ecology pages

Maryland Biodiversity Project

USDA Forest Service, "Monotropa uniflora - Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe"

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