The Mysterious Ghost Plant

While hiking an Oregon coast trail last week, I came upon a very strange patch of flowering plants. The stems, leaves and flowers were all an odd translucent white, and the flowers were pointed downward, as if wilted. Luckily I had my camera with me, and was able to get a picture.

Immediately upon returning home, I set out to discover the story behind this unique specimen. Over the next couple days I did a series of Google keyword and photo searches, but with no luck. I was beginning to think that I would never find the identity of this plant. Finally, I came upon a photo that was a match. This oddity is called a ghost plant.

Otherwise known as Indian pipe, the ghost plant (monotropa uniforma) does not convert the sun’s energy to food using chlorophyll like green plants do. Instead it steals its supply of energy from fungi, which nearby conifers provide sugars to.

The ghost plant is one of around 3,000 species of plants which do not use photosynthesis, and are known as heterotrophic. The geographic distribution of the ghost plant includes much of North America, making it the most common heterotrophic plant in this area.

This perennial wildflower with bell-shaped flowers, grows in moist, shaded forests containing mature cone-bearing trees. It is in the same family which includes blueberries and rhododendrons.

Since the ghost flower does not depend on light, it can even grow at night.

The buds remain pointed downward to protect the nectar from rain. But once the flowers open, they turn partially upward to make them more easily detected by pollinating insects.

To find out more about this remarkable plant, go The Botanical Society of America webpage.

Less than a week after encountering the ghost plant, I was exploring a forested area in Eastern Washington, near Kachess Lake, and I discovered three more heterotrophic plants (shown below).

The image on the left is a small flowering orchid commonly known as Pacific coralroot, the center is pine drop and and on the right is Dutchman’s pipe, which has a wider area of distribution than the ghost plant, but is rarely encountered. All three of these plants gather the energy they need in ways very similar to the ghost plant’s method.

I am not an authority on plants, just someone who has a curiosity about the mysteries of the natural world. And when I find something new that fascinates me, I think there may be others who will be interested as well.

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One Response to The Mysterious Ghost Plant

  1. I’ve never heard of Monotropa uniflora before, so I’m glad to see it here. Unfortunately the only place it grows in Texas, according to the USDA, is next to Louisiana, so I won’t see it on my hikes in Austin. You must have been happy to find such a strange [to us] plant.
    Steve Schwartzman


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