Monotropa uniflora, the Ghost Plant, aka Indian Pipe, Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for October 2002

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2021-08-15 23:00:06

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This month's fungus is not a fungus at all, but is often brought in to forays and by students thinking it must be a fungus because it's white and doesn't have any chlorophyll. But it's really a flowering plant-- in the blueberry family! This is one of about 3000 species of non-photosynthetic (i.e. heterotrophic) flowering plants. How does this plant survive?? I'll tell you later of the interesting way that this non-photosynthetic plant gets its food.

Monotropa uniflora can actually grow in dark (and spoooooooooky) environments because it is not dependent on light for photosynthesis. I tend to find this plant in rich habitats-- dense moist forests with much surface leaf litter, often in a situation that is too shaded for autotrophic (photosynthetic) growth. Finding the ghost plant is an indication to me that I am in a very rich woods, and I should be on the lookout for lots of interesting fungi. Monotropa uniflora is the most common species in Wisconsin and the rest of North America east of the Great Plains. It is also known from Japan, and probably occurs in other places as well. There are relatives of this plant that occur throughout the world.

There are at least 3000 species of non-photosynthetic members of the plant kingdom. All of these are vascular flowering plants (angiosperms), except for one weird non-photosynthetic liverwort that I know of (Cryptothallus mirabilis). Many of these angiosperms are members of the Ericaceae, a family that also includes blueberries, cranberries, heath, Rhododendron, azaleas, Arctostaphylos, and Arbutus. There are many other species of Monotropa, as well as other genera of mycoparasitic plants including Pterospora, Hermitomes, Sarcodes, Pityopus and others. All of these non-photosynthetic members of the Ericaceae belong to the subfamily Monotropoideae. There are a number of other plants in other families that I will discuss later.

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