Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

The Ghost Plant: A Closer Look At The Spookiest Plant In The Forest

What’s black and white and spooky all over? The ghost plant! More commonly known as Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) since it is said to resemble a Native American peace pipe, it is also known as corpse plant, death plant, and ghost flower. This unusual looking plant is often mistaken as a fungus because it is mostly white and doesn’t have any chlorophyll… but it is really a flowering plant and is actually part of the same Family (Ericaceae) that includes blueberries, cranberries, azaleas, and Rhododendrons. Weird, right?

indian_pipe (missouri department of conservation)
Photo by Missouri Department of Conservation

You’ll often find Indian pipes in dark and spooooky environments. Since it doesn’t have any chlorophyll it doesn’t need light to photosynthesize its own food. Instead, the food source for this plant is a lot more sinister, for it is actually a parasite! Specifically, Indian pipes are parasitic on mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees (epiparasitism), meaning both the fungi and trees both benefit from each other. The tree gathers sunlight and use it to turn water and carbon dioxide into sugars and other carbohydrates. The fungi harvest minerals in the soil. The tree and fungi then exchange these resources in a process that resembles a harmonious story of cooperation and mutual benefit. It is then exploited by the Indian pipe.

What happens is the tree obtains its energy (sugars and other carbohydrates) from photosynthesis and the fungus obtain some of those sugars directly from the tree roots. So how does the Indian pipe get its energy from the fungus? Some menacing tom-foolery, that’s how! The Indian pipe actually tricks the fungus into thinking it is forming a mycorrhizal relationship, but in fact the Indian pipe is parasitizing the fungus! The Indian pipe essentially gets a free ride and doesn’t have to produce its own energy or absorb its own minerals. Typically, when a parasite exploit a host the host fights back, but for some reason the fungus and tree goes along with the Indian pipe’s menacing ploy.

By Staben, accessed from Wikicommons
Indian pipe flowers, photo by Staben, accessed from Wikicommons

After months, and sometimes years, of gathering its nutrients from the fungus into its root system, the Indian pipe, almost rather suddenly, develops above ground. White stalks and then flowers are produced, which are then pollinated by insects. Once pollinated the Indian pipe releases tens of thousands of extremely tiny seeds, which hardly have the food storage capacity to start a new plant. Those seeds are dispersed long distances by wind and settles to the ground. Once there, the seeds actually don’t start growing right away. In fact, the seeds chemically mimic a tree’s root systems and wait for certain types of mycorrhizal fungus to come along. The fungus then attaches to the seed as it would to a tree, but then is forced into providing nutrients the tiny seeds needs to grow! So essentially, from seedling to growth to pollination to seed dispersal, the Indian pipe does almost absolutely nothing itself!

Ryan Hodnett, accessed from Wikicommons
Dried Indian pipe flowers, photo by Ryan Hodnett, accessed from Wikicommons

Due to its fascinating nature, the Indian pipe has been immortalized by many poets and storytellers in their works, including Emily Dickinson, whose favorite flower was the Indian pipe. She drafted the poem “‘Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe-” in 1879:

Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe –
‘Tis dimmer than a Lace –
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place –
Not any voice imply it here –
Or intimate it there –
A spirit – how doth it accost –
What function hath the Air?
This limitless Hyperbole
Each one of us shall be –
‘Tis Drama – if Hypothesis
It be not Tragedy –

Post by Matt Brincka, State Parks