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Vampires Among Us: The Ghost Pipe Plant

By Elizabeth A. Gjieli

Aug 11 2021

Did you know that some plants lack chlorophyll? Often confused for a fungus, Monotropa uniflora, commonly known as Ghost Pipe, is a whitish translucent plant found in shaded areas of forests throughout most of North America. As its scientific name suggests, this plant has a curved stem (“Monotropa” translates to “one turn”) bearing a single flower (“uniflora”). The coloring of Ghost Pipe is often white, but can range from pink to deep red in rare instances. This perennial plant is around 4-8 inches tall, occurs from June through September, and is typically found in clusters although stems may also be found alone.

Monotropa uniflora is classified as myco-heterotrophic, or a plant that gathers most, if not all, of its nutrients from a host fungus. Ghost Pipe does this by accessing the underground network of mycorrhizal fungi which have a symbiotic relationship with trees. By colonizing the root system of trees, mycorrhizal fungi provide trees with harvested phosphorus, nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals from the soil (in addition to other benefits such as improving water access). In exchange for this, trees provide the fungi with resources such as carbohydrates from photosynthesis. This is mutually beneficial for both parties, and this type of association, to a degree, is present in virtually all vascular land plants that exist today. Ghost Pipe takes advantage of this relationship and acts as a vampire to suck nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi in a parasitic manner. Essentially, Ghost Pipe benefits from the products of both the trees and the fungi without any known reciprocation while it is alive.

Ghost Pipe has captivated the interest of many throughout time for its healing properties in addition to its mystique. Several indigenous groups in North America have honored this plant and utilized it for medicinal purposes. The Cherokee pulverized and ingested its roots to alleviate epileptic fits in children, rubbed parts of the plant onto warts and bunions, and used liquid extracted from the plant to treat eye conditions (Hamel, 1975). The Cree chewed the flowers of the plant for toothache relief (Leighton, 1985). The root of Ghost Pipe was used by the Potawatomi as a gynecological aid, and an infusion of the root and/or leaves was used by the Mohegans as a cold remedy.

A Closer Look

Additional References:

Hamel, Paul B. and Mary U. Chiltoskey. 1975. Cherokee Plants and Their Uses: A 400 Year History. Sylva, N.C. Herald Publishing Co.,  ix, 207, p. 40.

Leighton, Anna L., 1985. Wild Plant Use by the Woods Cree (Nihithawak) of East-Central Saskatchewan, Ottawa. National Museums of Canada. Mercury Series, p.46