It’s that time of year. Days continue to get shorter and colder. When the alarm goes off in the morning, I notice the sun hasn’t yet made its appearance, and I’m rushing to get things done outside when I get home before it gets dark. As you all know, this trend will persist until the winter solstice has passed. Then, the days slowly start to lengthen.
I don’t enjoy the lingering darkness, but I learned recently of a plant called Monotropa uniflora that thrives in very dark environments, often in dense forests. Imagine my surprise when I discovered some of these ‘ghost pipes’ on my own property, sandwiched between an Aesculus parviflora (Bottlebrush Buckeye) hedge and a deciduous forest of oaks, hickories and cherries. Now that’s a pretty dark space. I only discovered them because I was clearing out some invasives that were taking over desired plantings.
Ghost plants can survive in spaces void of light because they don’t generate food through photosynthesis. Instead, they establish a relationship with the mycorrhizal network used by trees to communicate with one another and share water and nutrients. Through photosynthesis, trees create sugars used by the mycelium to create more spores and expand their networks.
Tapped into this fungal system, ghost pipe sends up a white stalk, resembling the vertebrae of a human spine, that blossoms into a bell-shaped flower. The flower faces upward toward the tree canopy as if expressing gratitude to the giants who help support its life and nods toward the ground in homage to the network that gives it true life.
In addition to being a unique and intriguing plant, ghost pipe is used as a tincture to help humans manage pain and anxiety. Herbalists like Sean Donohue say Monotropa provides these benefits because it has to act as a filter for the mass amount of information travelling across the networks it taps into, similar to a human spine and brainstem.
Technically, Monotropa is a native plant, but propagation is difficult as you can imagine. You won’t find these plants at your local nursery. I suggest you go ghost hunting in the dark corners of your garden. You just might just find some hiding there.