The first time I saw Ghost Pipes (Monotropa uniflora) was 30 years ago in a heavily canopied clearing in Nova Scotia. It was just inland from a beach-house the wife’s parents were renting for the Summer. I had no idea what they were. Pale white and frail with that waxy texture, they appeared unreal, almost ghostly. And that was before I even knew that was one of their common names.
They’d pushed their way through what appeared to be a deep layer of pine needles. I snapped picture after picture as the muffled Atlantic breakers crashed on the beach, just beyond the pines. I thought they were a unique “down east” lifeform, but the wife knew what they were right away. Once Home, I hit the library to learn more (keep in mind this was long before the internet). They were plants without chlorophyll. At that time they were thought to be saprophytic (feeding on dead organic material) rather like what was assumed of a mushroom. Since then we’ve learned that it’s much more complex than that. We now know that trees don’t “stand alone” as it were. They work with fungi at the root level, in a mutually beneficial relationship. The trees provide the fungi with sugars photosynthetically produced by chlorophyll in its leaves. In exchange, the fungus assists in providing water, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus to the tree’s root system. This is a true symbiotic relationship between the trees and the fungi. Some trees have even developed root-nodes for no other determinable reason, than to facilitate these fungi. In many cases, the fungi provides more efficiently for the tree than the tree’s own root-hairs.
Then … along come the Ghost Pipes. They move in, and “trick” the fungus into thinking they’re also interested in a beneficial symbiotic relationship. Remind you of anybody (we all know at least one of those) ? It quietly robs the fungus of water and nutrients intended for the tree, and even rips off the fungus for some of the sugars, from the tree. Now that’s gotta remind you of somebody eh ? Fortunately, the amounts we’re talking about here are miniscule, so there’s no harm done to tree or fungus. In their defense, Ghost Pipes have to do this, as they lack chlorophyll of their own.
This questionable menage-a-trois, does make growing Ghost Pipes in your Home garden, nigh-on impossible, so you’ll have to bug-spray yourself, and go for a walk in the bush to see them as the wife and I just did. They seem to be everywhere these days. We spotted quite a few at Peter’s Woods, and Stephen’s Gulch, even on our old morel trail, just moments from Home.
The pictures above, were taken within a week of each other. I’ve seen Ghost Pipes popping up through deep pine needle beds, and through mixed deciduous leaves without a pine in sight, so ignore the claims you’ll find on the misinformation highway about what kind of forests you’ll find them in. I realize the pictures have no reference perspective, so I’ll tell you, they’re about 6 – 8 inches tall, and they almost glow on the shadowed forest floor. I’m torn between describing them as appearing like wax carvings, or ice sculptures. Either way, they appear “other-Worldly” as the wife described them and the numerous mushrooms around them. There are variations on the Ghost Pipe, one of which is yellow (which we’ve seen) and another that’s distinctly red (haven’t seen that one to date). Yet another one added to the list of “wanna see in the wild” plants I suppose.