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A Ghost Plant for Halloween

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, October 30, 2015

There are exceptions to almost every rule in nature. We humans make the “rules” for our own benefit, trying to understand the life around us, and when we find exceptions, it just helps to remind us that maybe we haven’t quite figured it all out yet.

Plants need chlorophyll, right? Chlorophyll is vital for photosynthesis, which allows plants to obtain energy from light. We all learned this in science class at some time. It turns out that there is a whole group of vascular, flowering plants that don’t need chlorophyll at all, and at least one of them is blooming in Arkansas right now - Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora).

Since these plants don’t have chlorophyll, they are not green, but instead, a translucent white, hence the common name Ghost Pipe, Ghost Flower, and even Corpse Plant. Another common name is Indian Pipe, based on early Native American medicinal uses of the plant.

Monotropa uniflora can actually grow in dark (and spoooooooooky) environments because it is not dependent on light for photosynthesis. Instead of generating energy from sunlight, Ghost Pipe is parasitic. More specifically, it is a “myco-heterotroph” which is the term for a plant that gets all or part of its food from parasitism upon fungi rather than from photosynthesis. This plant is found in rich habitats -- dense moist forests with much surface leaf litter, often in a situation that is too shaded for photosynthetic growth.

People used to think that the Ghost Pipe lived on decaying leaves and called it a saprophyte. Today, we know that Monotropa uniflora has short, stubby roots that link with a few specific fungal hosts. The fungi extend in a web-like way through dead, rotting leaves and connect to the roots of a tree to form a symbiotic relationship. The fungus receives carbon and nutrients from the tree and, in turn, aids the tree in absorption of water and essential minerals. Thus, there is a three-way relationship between the photosynthetic tree, the fungus, and the parasitic Ghost Pipe plant.

The complex relationship that allows this plant to grow also makes propagation difficult. Ghost Pipe flowers, produces pollen and seed, and usually blooms in September and October. In the picture (taken in Newton County) the buds are not yet open and are facing downwards. As the plant blooms, the buds will move to a diagonal position and eventually face straight up.

You may not want to dress up as a Ghost Pipe plant for Halloween, but this little fall bloomer is a wonderful example of the complexities of nature and how many of those we have yet to discover!

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