Ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora)
By Jill Maes
Community Conservation Coordinator
EarthWays Center, Missouri Botanical Garden
In the spirit of spooky season, this installment of Species Spotlight goes to Monotropa uniflora, commonly referred to as ghost pipe. M. uniflora is commonly mistaken as being a fungus, but it is actually a perennial woodland flower. Monotropa is Greek for “one turn” and uniflora is Latin for “one flowered.” The ghost pipe is a member of the Monotropaceae family. Ghost pipe is native to Missouri and it is scattered throughout the state, but ghost pipe is uncommon, making it rare to come across. M. uniflora likes to grow in damp and shady woods at low to moderate elevations. Typically, ghost pipe is found growing in clusters, but it can be a stand-alone flower too. Ghost pipe does not contain chlorophyll, which gives it a pale white appearance. Sometimes you can come across ghost pipes that have a light pink coloration with black specks. M. uniflora grows to be four to eight inches tall with scale like leaves and a single white flower. The flower blooms from August to October.
Ghost pipes have a parasitic relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus and that fungus has a symbiotic relationship with nearby trees. Mycorrhiza means fungus root and this refers to the symbiotic relationship that fungi have with the roots of plants. In this relationship, the fungus roots will attach to the roots of a tree without causing harm to the tree. The ghost pipe then gets the energy from the tree through the fungus. The ghost pipe tricks the fungus by perceiving to create a mycorrhizal relationship. Then the flower of the ghost pipe is pollinated by insects. Once the flower has been pollinated, the plant can proceed by releasing thousands of seeds. The seeds require a mycorrhizal fungus to come along to provide the nutrients for a new plant to grow.
Ghost pipe is very delicate, touching or picking the plant will cause it to turn black and die. The plants will decay into mush when touched. Take only photos when you come across this unique flower.
For more information, visit Missouri Department of Conservation.