The Mysterious Ghost Pipe Plant

The Mysterious Ghost Pipe Plant

During the summer a mysterious, rare and unusual plant can be found in the deep shadows of the forest. Between June and September, pearly white ghost pipe plants appear. Hiding from the sun, they emerge near the base of mature trees and the cool moist shade of deep forests and are known for their waxy, almost translucent stems and flowers. The stem at the top of each plant, where a single blossom appears, points downward, giving it the appearance of a pipe. This downward shape of the flower conveniently prevents rainwater from diluting its nectar, which attracts pollinators.

These plants have also been called Indian pipes or ghost flowers due to the fact that, unlike most plants, they lack color. These fascinating wild plants have no chlorophyll, don’t depend on photosynthesis and grow in the dark of forests where other wild plants more dependent on sunlight would have difficulty growing.

I find these plants this time of year while hiking our wooded trails and always stop for a close look and to take a few pictures. The ghostly white plants stand out among the rust-colored pine needles and bark of the mature trees in the dark understory.

Here is some information about these fascinating plants from the U.S. Forest Service website.

Ghost pipe (also known as Indian Pipe) is a member of the Monotropaceae family. The genus name Monotropa is Greek for “one turn” referring to sharp recurving of top of the stem, and the specific epithet is Latin for “one flowered.” This native plant species is found throughout the majority of the United States in humus in deep, shady woods at low to moderate elevations. This species is also found in Asia.

These perennial plants are generally 4-8 inches tall, with small scale-like leaves, and white five parted flowers. Plants only have one flower per stem, and flowering occurs roughly from June through September. Stems can be found alone but are commonly found in small clusters.

It is striking in appearance because it is completely white in appearance, although individuals can have pink coloration and black specks. How does this plant survive without the green pigment chlorophyll? Chlorophyll is responsible for harnessing the sun’s energy to produce carbohydrates, a process known as photosynthesis. Ghost pipe saps nutrients and carbohydrates from tree roots through an intermediate source, myccorhizal fungi in the genera Russula and Lactarius.

The website link can be found at: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/monotropa_uniflora.shtml

After pollination, the stem and single flower turn upward producing fruit. The fruit is a small, brownish capsule. When it dies, it dries up and its seeds are released through slits in the skin. When it completes its annual life cycle it turns a blackish brown color.

Ghost pipe plants are perennial and will reappear in the same location each year. The plant is considered rare, however, it is not listed on the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s list of endangered, threatened and species of special concern plants.

The plant is very difficult to propagate and cultivate and will likely not survive transplanting from the wild. An abundant amount of forest humus around the plant would be necessary, as well as the appropriate fungi needed for its survival. It also needs the deep shade of mature trees. If you find it the woods near you house or on regular jaunts through our region’s forestlands, take pictures and enjoy its unearthly presence.

I hope you’ll join me as we explore The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor’s woodlands. Perhaps you’ll discover the ghost pipe plant and pause to take in the amazing plant that grows in the shadows. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Together let us enjoy it, care for it and pass it on.

Additional information on ghost pipe plants was sourced from The Chattahoochee Nature Center website and article by Emma Schell, “The Flower that Grows in the Dark.”

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or bill@tlgv.org

 

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.

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