In the “spirit” of the season, we wanted to highlight one of CNDDB’s spookiest species. Imagine wandering along a dark and secluded trail in the forest, a dense canopy of trees above you. You see a white patch on the ground out of the corner of your eye – is it a ghost? Sort of! Monotropa uniflora, a member of the Ericaceae family, is known by the common names ghost pipe, ghost plant, or Indian pipe.
As one might suspect from its ghostly pallor, these plants do not contain chlorophyll and therefore cannot produce their own nutrients. M. uniflora is a mycoheterotroph; they are parasites on underground fungi. In turn, these fungi obtain their nutrients by forming mycorrhizal relationships with tree roots, which means that there is a mutually beneficial exchange of resources between the fungi and tree roots. Therefore, M. uniflora plants are indirectly taking their nutrients from the nearby trees by stealing them from the fungi they are parasitizing. Since M. uniflora does not require direct sunlight and is closely associated with trees, it can be found in dark areas of the forest understory.
Although M. uniflora is widespread through much of Northern America, it is considered rare in California with a California Rare Plant Rank of 2B.2. Currently there are 100 occurrences of this species in CNDDB, all of which are restricted to the far northern coast of California in Del Norte and Humboldt counties. While M. uniflora populations tend to occur in remote and unpopulated areas, this does not mean they are immune to human-caused threats and disturbances. Due to the preference for forested habitats, the primary threat to M. uniflora in California is timber harvest operations.
If you happen to catch a glimpse of this elusive specter in California, don’t forget to submit your observation using the Online Field Survey Form!
Photo credit: Keir Morse