The forest floor hosts all kinds of life forms–spiders that digest their prey from the inside out, slimy mucus-covered reptiles that seek refuge underneath decaying logs, and small mammals that scurry across downed branches before owls can swoop down and grab them. You may have also stumbled across something more sinister, more haunting, erupting from the forest floor: GHOST PIPES! OOOOOOO (not sure how to spell a ghost/ghoul sound).

Known by the names “ghost pipes” or “Indian pipes”, Monotropa uniflora is typically a white flowering plant that grows in thick forests with ample leaf litter. That’s right, ghost pipes are in fact a flower not fungi! So you could say it’s a fun plant but not a fungi. You might be thinking to yourself, “Tim, if ghost pipes are a flowering plant why aren’t they green?” Fantastic question, my response would be because they are the ghosts of prehistoric plants coming back to haunt the forests of present day! Spoooooky, right? No need to worry, that is not true at all. I find the real reason to be way cooler–they lack Chlorophyll! Chlorophyll is the pigment in plants that give the plant its green color and help them process sunlight into food. See, way cooler than being a spectral plant! Some individuals can have pink or red colorations but are less common than the typical white.

Close up image of ghost pipes with pink coloring growing from the forest floor.

Pink coloration of ghost pipes (Photo credit: Craig Highfield)

If ghost pipes seem unusual, you’re right: it happens to be 1 of approximately 3000 non-photosynthetic flowering plants. Non-photosynthetic plants are plants that use other processes to create food besides the typical process of photosynthesis. Now, knowing that information, the reasonable person is probably thinking to themselves, “I understand that they aren’t ghosts, but they have to be the living dead if photosynthesis isn’t involved in the growing process.” Well I have some news for you, they are living but not the living dead. Ghost pipes rely on other plants for the nutrients needed to grow and survive. The process is quite fascinating but quite simple in concept. It involves neighboring trees and mycorrhizal fungi, which are attached to tree roots. Trees perform photosynthesis and send sugars down to the roots, where the fungi exchanges them for water and nutrients.Monotropa uniflora is also attached to the mycorrhizal fungi, diverting nutrients from the fungi to itself. This process allows the ghost pipes to thrive on the forest floor where leaf litter is thick and the canopy above does not allow much sunlight to reach the ground.

Red pocket knife laying next to ghost pipe fungus on the forest floor to compare size.

The typical white coloration of ghost pipes (Photo credit: Ryan Davis).

Even though ghost pipes are quite unusual in many senses they are pretty typical when it comes to the reproduction style they utilize. Each stem that erupts from the forest floor has a single bell shaped flower that needs to be pollinated. The pollination is executed by our little flying friends, bees. No, not ghost bees, just your typical living bee. Before pollination occurs the flower is bent over like it’s waiting to come to life. Once pollination occurs the flower stands upright like it’s rising from the dead. Once the flower is standing tall and the seeds are formed, a gust of wind will come along dispersing future ghost pipes.

Now you know ghost pipes aren’t really fungi (or ghosts) at all! They are just unique flowering plants. So next time you’re walking through the forest and see a group of white scaly stalks on the forest floor don’t scream and run away in terror (definitely not speaking from experience). Maybe get down real close to the ghost pipes to sit there and admire the beautiful uniqueness of what nature can produce.

This article is a feature of the Alliance’s Forests for the Bats – a spooky, Halloween edition of the monthly Forests for the Bay newsletter. Learn more here.