Walking through a coniferous forest in summer is like walking through an art exhibit on the various shades of green. Deep browns serve as the backdrop to an impressive display of deep, emerald tones and bright, lime highlights. But if one pays careful attention, and is very lucky, a ghostly white plant might peek up through the forest floor. Ghost Pipe, Montropa unifora, is a very odd summer bloomer.
Lacking chlorophyll, this plant does not photosynthesize, meaning it doesn’t make its own food. Instead this parasitic plant pushes up from the rich humus of shady forest floors, where its roots use both the fungal network (mycelium) and tree roots as sources of water and nutrients. Ghost Pipe displays a delicate, nodding flower that, when pollinated, produces an upright fruit.
Ghost Pipe has a fleshy texture and, like other plants, can be cool to the touch. Its other common names rightly include ice plant and corpse flower. The human history of this plant, its ethnobotany, is rich. Among the Straights Salish peoples, it is associated with wolves and is said to grow where wolves have urinated. For the Nlaka’pamux, this plant is an indicator species for fall mushrooms. Medicinally, Ghost Pipe has been mashed and applied as a poultice for wounds that will not heal and is said to cure pain. Its ghostly presence signals a mature, healthy mixed-conifer forest and at the Nature Preserve this plant is best spotted along the Woods Trail in the Uplands area.