Plant of the Week

Monotropa uniflora range map.
Monotropa uniflora range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Monotropa uniflora
Monotropa uniflora. Photo by Chantelle DeLay, botanist, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Monotropa uniflora
Monotropa uniflora. Photo by Chantelle DeLay, botanist, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora L.)

By Chantelle DeLay

Ghost pipe (also known as Indianpipe) is a member of the Monotropaceae family. Members of this family were formerly considered part of the family Ericaceae, but recent evidence suggests they should be considered separate. 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. It is noticeably absent throughout the range of the Rocky Mountains. 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. Dr. Tom Volk provides an excellent in-depth explanation of this three-part process, with animated diagrams, on his web page, Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month for October 2002. In addition, take a look at Celebrating Wildflower's Thieves from the Heath - Mycotrophic Wildflowers for more information about these types of plants and related species.

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