The last few times I have walked up the steep slope in Rock Creek Park on a trail from Gates Road, I have come across this odd ephemeral flowering white plant called Monotropa uniflora.
Monotropa is a Greek word that means “one turn,” and in the case of this plant, it refers to the sharp curve at its top, which leads to the flower. Its common name is ghost plant, ghost pipe or Indian Pipe. It is found in deeply shaded forest areas and is native to U.S.
Ghost plants are white in color because they do not have any chlorophyll, and do not get their nutrients from photosynthesis. What they feed on instead is a fungus that draws its own nutrients from the roots of beech trees.
On one of my walks, I saw a small bumblebee investigating the flowers. That was a puzzler. Could such a flower, one that gets its food from a symbiotic relationship with fungi and trees, attract bees?
I learned that they do indeed. The ghost plant attracts flies and bees, particularly bumblebees. They rely on these insects for pollination.
As a ghost plant flower matures, it grows more erect, and rises to be perpendicular to the stem. Once pollinated, a seed packet develops and the flower aligns with the stem.
The flowers sit atop a 4 to 12-inch stem. The blooms themselves are .4 to .8 inches in length, with 10 to 12 stamens and a single pistil. When the seed packet, the plant’s fruit, is fully ripened, slits open from the top of flower to its base, and its seeds are released to the wind.
I’m looking forward to watching them grow.