Friday, August 6, 2010

White Mountains Part Three: Monotropa uniflora

I am very excited to bring you the next post covering my brief trip to the White Mountains. This somewhat bizarre flower is colloquially known as the Ghost Flower, Ghost Plant, Corpse Plant, Indian Pipe and probably a few other names. Besides having a pretty awesome set of common names the plant itself is fascinatingly weird. It’s a flowering plant with no chlorophyll. As you probably know (or maybe you don’t) most plants contain a chlorophyll, molecules that both give plants their color as well as serve to absorb light and start the process of converting it into usable energy for the organism. In a quick search of definitions for the molecules you may hear that they are found in all plants. Not true.

So if the Ghost Flower (I think that’s the best name) doesn’t gather energy from sunlight like most plants how does it gather usable energy? Well this is the other reason I’m so excited to write about this plant. Instead of employing photosynthesis it taps directly into (any guesses?) the mycelial network!

These plants (there are actually many species of these flowers) are considered to be parasitic on the mycorrhizal fungus of the network but the energy (mostly in the form of carbon) that the plants use to power themselves is coming primarily from the photosynthesis of trees that are tapped into the network. Apparently the drain is so small that the trees, and thus the fungus, are “physiologically unaware” of the energy loss. Perhaps they’re pirates but the amount of energy is at such low levels that it’s almost negligible.

These flowers are found growing in unusually dark places in New England forests. Because they no longer rely on photosynthesis they fill a niche unavailable to most ground plants. You often find them where even the trees only have leaves or needles at the very tops. The next time you’re out in the woods look for these weird plants. I often mistook them for fungi when I first learned about them because they have such weird white bodies and flowers.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure they’re haunted.


University of Wisconsin:


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