Species of the Week: The Ghost Pipe

Photo by Adam Kalab

This week’s #SpeciesOfTheWeek is the Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). With its waxy white colour, it might be mistaken for a mushroom, but it is actually a perennial plant! However, it does not behave like a normal plant. The white colouration of Ghost Pipes comes from their complete lack of chlorophyll, which means they are unable to generate food from photosynthesis. Instead, this plant is a myco-heterotroph, and part of a complex relationship. Most plants have mycorrhizal fungi, which form a network in the roots and allow plants to exchange carbon and nutrients with other plants. Myco-heterotrophs like Ghost Pipe get their nutrients by parasitizing these mycorrhizal fungi. Ghost Pipe has a small range of host fungi, most of which are associated with beech trees. It is usually found in damp, shaded areas of mature forests. Ghost Pipe has a single flower with 3-8 petals, and it usually flowers during the summer and fall, a few days after rainfall. It only appears above ground when it flowers, and the flowering process lasts just one week. When the flower first opens it points downwards, but it straightens as it matures until it is pointing directly upwards. The plant then turns black, which is where its other name, Corpse Plant, comes from. This plant is highly sought after due to its short visible life cycle, perceived rarity, and uses in herbal medicine. However, it may be toxic to humans, so it is best to avoid picking it. Please remember that it is illegal to pick wild plants in a provincial park. If you wish to pick a plant for use in traditional medicine please contact the park naturalist. 

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