• Lucy

Plant or Fungus?

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

When these ghostly white forms emerge from the earth, it is hard to know what they are. Any guesses?

They are a strange, translucent, white plant known as Ghost Plant, corpse plant or Indian pipe. I much prefer the name ghost plant, because it is a plant and the name Indian pipe is disrespectful to the first peoples of this land. It is not a name that a Native American would choose.

Ghost Plant does look a bit like a strange fungus when it first is emerging.

They have a translucent, and some times even pinkish, ghostly beauty.

The flowers gradually begin to turn upward to enable small wasps and the insects to pollinate them.

After pollination, the flowers turn upwards. The dried, brown seed pods each have thousands of seeds that will be transported widely by the wind.

Ghost plant lacks the green chlorophyl (essential for photosynthesis) that makes the energy for most plants. So how does it produce its energy?

On a side note: If you stop to think about it, photosynthesis is amazing! Plants take sunlight, water and carbon dioxide (what we breathe out) and make sugars (and the complex molecules that give them the energy to grow) and oxygen. Plants provide many gifts including both food and oxygen that we and other creatures need to survive.

Ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora) is a parasitic plant. It gets its energy indirectly from other plants rather than via photosynthesis. It's roots tap directly into the thread-like fungus (hyphae) that connect most of the forest flora. This tread-like fungus extends throughout healthy forest soil allowing it to absorb minerals from the soil. The association between trees (and other plants) with the fungi is known as mycorrhiza. Both plants and fungi benefit. Trees provide the fungi with sugars (and other carbohydrates) and the fungi provide trees with important minerals. Ghost plant parasitizes the hyphae (tread-like fungi) underground and takes from it both minerals and the sugars (and the carbohydrates) that the fungi got from the trees. 

Ghost plant is not a fungus, but a lot of fungus are now emerging in the woods after the recent rain.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, it is amazing what you can discover!

Share what you notice with a family member, friend or neighbor.

For an interesting discussion about ghost plant (AKA Indian pipe) see curiousnature.info or botany.org. Curious Nature provides an a good explanation about the amazing, complex relationship between trees and fungus and how ghost plants appears to exploit this relationship.

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