Monotropa uniflora, also known as ghost plant, ghost pipe or Indian pipe, is an herbaceous perennial plant native to temperate regions of Asia, North America and northern South America, but with large gaps between areas. The plant is sometimes completely waxy white, but often has black flecks or pale pink coloration. Rare variants may have a deep red color.
Taxonomy and background
It was formerly classified in the family Monotropaceae, but is now included within the Ericaceae. It is of ephemeral occurrence, depending on the right conditions (moisture after a dry period) to appear full grown within a couple of days.
Unlike most plants, it is white and does not contain chlorophyll. Instead of generating energy from sunlight, it is parasitic, and more specifically a mycoheterotroph. Its hosts are certain fungi that are mycorrhizal with trees, meaning it ultimately gets its energy from photosynthetic trees. Since it is not dependent on sunlight to grow, it can grow in very dark environments as in the understory of dense forest. It is often associated with beech trees. The complex relationship that allows this plant to grow also makes propagation difficult.
The stems reach heights of 5–30 centimetres (2.0–11.8 in), sheathed with highly reduced leaves 5–10 millimetres (0.20–0.39 in) long, best identified as scales or bracts. These structures are small, thin, and translucent; they do not have petioles but instead extend in a sheath-like manner out of the stem.
As its scientific name suggests, and unlike the related Monotropa hypopitys (but like the close relation Monotropastrum humile), the stems bear a single flower 10–20 millimetres (0.39–0.79 in) long, with 3–8 translucent petals, 10–12 stamens and a single pistil. It flowers from early summer to early autumn, often a few days after rainfall. The fruit, an oval capsule-like structure, enlarges and becomes upright when the seeds mature, at this point stem and capsule looking desiccated and dark brown or black.
The seeds of M. uniflora are small, ranging between 0.6-0.8 mm in length.
Monotropa uniflora is found in three general distribution areas: Asia, North America, and Central and northern South America. DNA analysis has shown that these three populations are genetically distinct from one another. Furthermore, the North American population and the Central/South American population appear to be more closely related to each other than either are related to the Asian population.
M. uniflora growing in numbers at Camano Island State Park.
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