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Weird & Wonderful Creatures: The Ghost Plant

The Ghost Plant (Monotropa uniflora)

At first glance, the ghost plant (also known as the Indian pipe or corpse plant), might look like a type of mushroom. Found on forest floors in temperate areas of Asia and North and South America, Monotropa uniflora is in fact a species of perennial plant. Unlike most plants, the ghost plant does not contain chlorophyll, which explains both its waxy whitish color and its inability to obtain energy from sunlight.

The ghost plant instead absorbs its nutrients through a unique process called myco-heterotrophy. This method of gathering nutrients requires the ghost plant to attach itself to a host fungus, which is itself dependent on a host tree. The relationship between the host fungus and host tree is generally mutually beneficial as they can exchange important nutrients, but the ghost plant enters the equation only to "steal" nutrients from the tree via the fungus. The ghost plant is therefore often referred to as a parasitic species.

Because ghost plants do not need sunlight to grow, they can be found in very dark areas like shaded forest floors. As long as they can find suitable fungal hosts, ghost plants are able to thrive. They propagate by being pollinated by bees, which collect nectar from the ghost plants' flowers, and distributing their seeds.

If you see a ghost plant in the wild, don't pick it! Deprived from its source of nutrients, it will quickly wither and turn black.

To learn more about plant biodiversity, take a look at our Plants 1: Plant Parents, Plants 2: Plant Propagation, What Parts Are There To A Plant?, and Grassland Plants: Plant Identification lessons. 

Image credit: Matthew S. Staben via Wikimedia Commons