Ghost pipes (Monotropa uniflora) unfurl leafless, almost translucent blooms from even the deepest woodland shadows, often where little else grows. Despite their luminous appearance, ghost pipes do not utilize sunlight for energy and thus lack the photosynthesizing chlorophyll that imparts to most plants their lush pigmentation. Instead, they have evolved to siphon all their sustenance from fungi in the soil, in a parasitic relationship called mycoheterotrophy. Their fungal hosts are hardly the worse, as they, in turn, draw nutrients from the roots of trees and other forest plants with which they have symbiotic relationships. On a macro level, these relationships are thought to benefit the forest by triggering the vast underground network of interdependent roots and fungi to transport nutrients where they are needed most.
An entire ghost pipe is typically pearly white, although it may be flushed pink or flecked with black. When first emerging from the soil, its pallid nubs can have the somewhat ghoulish appearance of stubby, dead fingers, lending it the common name “corpse plant.” The plant’s leaves have been reduced to small scales along its stems, which can appear singly or in dense clumps. Each stem is tipped with a single, nodding bloom, forming the crook from which it derives its most common common name, “ghost pipe.” Bumblebees are a known pollinator and somewhat surprising sight in the forest depths these blooms inhabit, a testament to their industry in foraging. After pollination, the stem straightens, topped by a pointed seed capsule. In this wand-like form, the stems dry and persist into the following year, offering a clue as to the whereabouts of these perennials even when not in bloom.
Ghost pipes have a vast but irregular distribution across North America, northern South America, and Asia. In the Pacific Northwest, look for them at relatively low elevation in deeply shaded gaps on the forest floor in conifer or mostly conifer woodland.
Typical Pacific Northwest ghost pipe habitat.
Note the clump of ghost pipes circled in the lower left corner: