Garden of Horrors: Monotropa uniflora

Garden of Horrors: Monotropa uniflora

Usually, when I put one of these together, we all get to make stink-faces and act terrified by some weird plant or fungi. In the past, I’ve shared this horrific mushroom thing, trees that bleed red, and this ugly worm-like fungus. Today’s plant is a little different. It’s not that terrifying visually, but when you realize how downright weird it is, you’ll see why it’s a candidate for this series. Meet Monotopa uniflora, the ghost plant.

Ghost plants
Ghost plants, photo by O18 shared on English Wikipedia

They’re pretty to look at; Emily Dickinson reportedly loved them. Usually white, occasionally flecked, these plants can also come in pinks and reds if the conditions are right. And conditions matter to Monotropa uniflora. This mysterious fella is classified as an ephemeral (just like ghosts); it only shows up when moisture follows a dry period.

But, it gets much weirder. You see the ghost plant doesn’t need the sun to grow, and because of that, it can easily grow in very dark places (just like ghosts.) The plant—and this is a plant, it has roots, seeds, and flowers—contains no chlorophyll, which is why it’s most often white (again, just like a ghost.)

"Ghost Plant" by qkjosh is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Ghost Plant” by qkjosh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We love creepy parasitic plants around here, and the ghost plant is also a parasite, but it doesn’t grow by feeding off other plants. Instead, the ghost plant feeds on fungi that are mycorrhizal with the trees in old growth forests (as far as I know, ghosts don’t do this, but you never know.)

Some people call these “Indian pipes,” but those people are wrong. This is the ghost plant. Take all of this evidence: growing in the dark, usually white and even translucent in places, rejecting the notion of the sun, spooky, and parasitic. That’s all very ghostly stuff—ghost plant is a much more fitting common name.

I mentioned earlier that Emily Dickenson loved the ghost plant, in a letter to a friend she once said, “That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural…” which is a lovely thing to say about the little creeps.

Despite appearances, I think it’s pretty easy to see why the Monotropa uniflora belongs in our garden of horrors.


☠️ More Garden of Horrors


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →