Today, upon kneeling to examine a lovely bed of moss on the Blanchard Loop Ski Trail, I found myself face-to-face with a ghost. There, tucked in beside the moss beneath the deep shade of the trees, I found Indian Pipe, also known as "ghost flower" or "corpse plant". The abnormal translucence of this flowering plant lends it a certain eeriness
Indian Pipe's ghostlike appeareance can be attributed to its lack of chlorophyll. A plant without chlorophyll? (Yes, I know, it goes against everything you ever learned in 8th-grade science class. ) Instead of making its own food through photosynthesis, this wily little plant freeloads off of fungus. Therefore, it does not need chlorophyll or leaves.
Here's how it works:
- First, a living plant and a fungus from the genera Russula or Lactarius, enter into a symbiotic relationship. (Symbiosis is a fancy way of saying that both parties benefit.)
- In this relationship, the fungus helps the plant absorb water more efficiently and the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates.
- The Indian Pipe tricks the fungus into forming a similar relationship with it.
- Indian Pipe then parasitizes the fungi, stealing their hard-earned nutrients without returning the expected carbohydrates.
Despite its lack of chlorophyll, Indian Pipe is still classified as a plant. In fact, it shares a common ancestry with plants like blueberries, cranberries, heath, Rhododendron, and azalea! Like its well-loved relatives, Indian Pipe bears flowers and uses insects for pollination. Once pollinated the delicate, white flower will turn upward and the flower will brown. The ovary then develops into a small capsule with slits through which the seeds will disperse.
Watch for Indian Pipes in rich, healthy forests in shady areas.