Ghost Plant


When I was teaching and in “the field” at just the right place and time with students, we’d come upon this odd “thing”, usually in deep woods and in the dark damp shade of Rhododendron.

“So. Animal, vegetable or mineral?”

Most would soon say it is a plant because it didn’t run away. It seemed rooted. But something wasn’t quite right about it as a plant.

“So what’s not right?” I’d ask them, and finally, one will say “It’s not GREEN?”

Well how can a plant be NOT green? Is the green of plants just a matter of color décor or does it have a particular function? Then how might this plant solve that same problem without being green?

Ghost Plant (or Indian Pipe) here lacks chlorophyll, hence its pale leafery. It can’t carry on photosynthesis without that green pigment molecule that converts photons of light into high energy electrons and ultimately to hydrocarbons–sugars, starches and fats.

It is a parasite. Its roots find the roots of green plants and take up the manufactured foods from that host tree and uses it for its own growth.

We found this little bunch on our regular loop after having walked past that very spot every day for a week. It had been there all along, but this ghost til then had been invisible.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Greetings, Fred, and thanks for this lovely entry on one of my favorite woodland entities. The first few times I encountered Indian Pipe in the woods, it seemed like something from another planet. It’s lovely ethereal stuff to find in the woods.

  2. About 7-8 years after we moved into this house, I spotten some of that in the woods only about 6 feet from our driveway. I had never seen it before, and I thought it was some sort of fungus or mushroom at first. You got a great photo of it, Fred, as usual.

    I love that photo in your header!

  3. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m continually amazed at the strange and wonderful things this planet spits out of the ground. This one’s a little creepy. Your nature photography is some of the best out there.

  4. I think this one actually feeds off the living roots of its host rather than dead or decaying matter as would be true for a saprophyte.

  5. I was thrilled to find this plant in my woods on Aug. 11. Had seen pictures and read about them, but finding one was wonderful.