GHOST PLANT:

AN UNDERSTORY THIEF

by Adelia E. Ritchie, Autumn 2019

Photos by John F. Williams except where noted

GHOST PLANT:

AN UNDERSTORY THIEF

by Adelia E. Ritchie, Autumn 2019

 

Indian Pipes

 

“Stop,” I said.  “Indian Pipes.” 

Ghostly white,

tiny vampires reaching up

from moist loam

beneath an ancient forest.

You picked a few,

a colorless bouquet

wilting in your hand

without its fungal web

to nourish it.

“Let the ghosts sleep,”

I said, “and hug the trees

that feed them.”

     –Adelia Ritchie, August 2019

Photo by Karen Hackenberg

Is it a mushroom or a flowering plant? On your walks in the deep woods from June through September, you might encounter Monotropa uniflora, also known as ghost plant, Indian pipe, or corpse plant, a ghostly white understory plant. It’s easy to confuse this plant with a mushroom because of its eerie whiteness. This perennial plant has no chlorophyll and cannot make energy from the sun like most other plants do. Because it’s not dependent on sunlight to grow, it can thrive in the dark understory of our ancient forests. 

In the deep shade of the forest, often near dead tree stumps, look for single white flowers, sometimes appearing in clumps, almost translucent, and sometimes with black flecks. As it emerges from the soil, the ghost plant flower points downward, and at maturity becomes erect, in line with the stem. Ghost plants grow to 4-8 inches tall, with small scale-like leaves and white five-parted flowers, one flower per stem. You might see very mature plants as well, and these can be dark brown to black, with their flowers or seed heads pointed upward.

So, how does a ghost plant feed itself? Green chlorophyll-containing trees and plants use energy from the sun to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into sugars and other carbohydrates, in a process called photosynthesis. These sugars are passed down through the roots to mycorrhyzal fungi in the soil. In exchange, the fungus provides water and minerals to the trees. Through this mutually beneficial symbiotic system, nutrients produced by one tree can be shared with other trees and plants through the underground fungal network.

See more about the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi in the article Survival of our Woods in this issue.
Mature plants turn dark and flowers point upwards.

But ghost plants have no chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesize! Instead, its root system interconnects with underground fungi, gathering nutrients from them in a parasitic, rather than symbiotic, relationship. Being parasitic means that the ghost plant benefits at the expense of the mycorrhyzal fungi associated with the roots of nearby trees. Therefore, even the ghost plant, which has no chlorophyll to make its own food, can still benefit from nutrients produced by other photosynthesizing plants. In other words, the ghost plant takes and gives nothing back, and this thieving behavior allows it to grow in complete shade, in a ménage á trois relationship between a photosynthetic tree, a mycorrhizal fungus and a parasitic plant! Fortunately, the ghost plant, when it dies, returns all the nutrients it took from its hosts back to the forest floor, where it will be absorbed, eaten and recycled by other creatures.

The ghost plant is edible, for the adventurous, in small quantities. It is said they taste rather bland if eaten raw, but when cooked taste like asparagus. But don’t eat too much! The plant contains glycosides (compounds that help store sugars) and can be poisonous if eaten in quantity.

If you do find ghost plants on your walks, it’s best not to try to transplant them back home in a shady spot in your garden. They’re not likely to survive without their underground support network to supply them with water and nutrients. Reminding us of tiny white vampires reaching up through the litter on the forest floor, these chlorophyll-lacking plants have carved a unique niche in the understory food web and are best enjoyed in their natural environment.

  You can learn more about the beneficial and pathogenic mushrooms in the article, Think Like a Mushroom in this issue

Adelia Ritchie grew up on a northern Virginia farm, with horses, cattle, dogs, and her pet pig Porky, who ran the whole show. A long-time resident of the great Pacific Northwest, Adelia is a serial entrepreneur, scientist, educator, and artist. She received a B.S. in Chemistry and Physics from the University of West Florida, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Physical Organic Chemistry from Northwestern University. In June 2017, she completed the Climate Reality Leadership training program under the Hon. Al Gore, and currently works with educators, organizers and strategists to promote a deeper understanding of the science of climate change and its impacts on the complex ecological web of life. Adelia resides in Hansville, WA, with her garden, her dogs and a flock of very entertaining chickens.

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