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Spooky Species Spotlight: Ghost Pipe!

Monotropa uniflora.
Monotropa uniflora. Photo by National Park Service (Public Domain).

What could be that ghostly white creature lurking in the darkest corners of the forest? In the spirit of the season, we wanted to highlight one of the spookiest species: Monotropa uniflora. Also known as ghost pipe, corpse plant, and Indian pipe, this perennial parasitic plant species is found in humus in shady, wooded areas at moderate elevations throughout the world.

These native plants have small scale-like leaves and a single flower that blooms from June through September. The entire plant is completely white with some individuals having a pink coloration or black specks. Ghost pipes contain no chlorophyll (the green pigment that enables most plants to photosynthesize) because they are mycoheterotrophs, meaning they obtain nutrients from fungi. Instead of using chlorophyll to produce carbohydrates from the sun like most plants, the parasitic ghost pipe steals its nutrients and carbohydrates from mycorrhizal fungi that transfer nutrients from tree roots. Since the ghost pipe does not depend on sunlight, it can grow in the spookiest parts of the forest understory where there is little or no light.

The estimated range of Monotropa uniflora on the North Coast.
The estimated range of Monotropa uniflora on the North Coast. Map from CA Native Plant Society.

Ghost pipes were used by Native Americans for their medicinal properties as a nervine and analgesic (pain reliever), and have significance associated with the spirit world. Due to the ghost pipe’s rare occurrence, it is recommended to leave these plants alone because their reliance on mycorrhizal fungi is difficult to replace, and they cannot survive disturbance, which disrupts the plant’s nutrient supply.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are 100 occurrences of ghost pipe in the state, restricted to the temperate rainforests along the North Coast of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, and although ghost pipes are more common elsewhere, they are rare overall, and fairly threatened in California with a Rare Plant Rank of 2B.2. The primary threat to spooky ghost pipe plants are even spookier timber harvest operations.


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