Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Ghost Flower

The ghostly corpse rises up out of the thick duff layer, followed by another, and then another, and so on.
Known as the ghost flower, corpse plant, or more commonly as Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), this waxy white plant that looks like a pipe or a corpse, is a parasite. It associates with certain fungus, tapping into the mycelia (root-like threads) of the fungus to capture nutrients. The fungus in turn gets its food from a nearby tree. The fungus and the tree work cooperatively. The fungus helps the tree absorb water and minerals, while the tree provides nutrients to the fungus. Given its parasitic ways, the Indian pipe offers nothing in return to the fungus or the tree.

Indian pipes like rich soil with a thick layer of decaying plant matter. Often they emerge near fallen logs. Surprisingly they are in the heath family, related to cranberries, blueberries, and the like. I'd rather eat a blueberry than snack on the ghost plant. It is not a sweet taste that they have in common, but the mycorrizal relationship with other plants that members of the heath family have in common.

Here, the white columns of Indian pipes stand like sentinels under a dark canopy of white pine.

Eventually the plant turns black and the corpse plant melts back into the duff.

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