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Ghost Plant

GHOST PLANT (Monotropa uniflora)

Image adapted from Wikipedia
Original image by O18
So it took only four animal posts before I decided "hey, I'm going to write about a plant instead". Granted, I picked one of the least plant-like plants to write about, but still, this post is going to be more Botanical Review than Zoo Review. With that said, let's see how well this weird-ass fuckin plant stacks up in the categories I chose specifically for animals and using the arbitrary point system I invented! Whee!


One of the things that you might notice first about the ghost plant is it's ghostly appearance. That's right, it's called the ghost plant because instead of being green like a normal plant, it's almost translucent white like a weirdo. That's because it is heterotrophic (I'll explain what that means in more detail later on) and doesn't have any chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green. So they end up looking like creepy tendrils growing out of the ground. That makes ghost plants 100% spooky, and 100% cool as shit.

Points: 1/1


Unlike regular green plants, ghost plants aren't visible above ground all the time. Again, this is tied to them being heterotrophic which I'm not ready to explain yet but will rather leave hanging to build suspense. Instead, they operate more like a fungus, with the bulk of their body growing underground, and only their reproductive structures seeing the light of day. That's right, the ghost plant's flower is basically a mushroom. Like mushrooms, ghost plant flowers sprout up seemingly out of nowhere, enhancing their mystery.

Points: 1/1


Ghost plants are found throughout the northern hemisphere, including my boyfriend's backyard although I have yet to see them. Unlike animals (and by animals I mean large, terrestrial vertebrates), the global conservation status of plants is not very well monitored because nobody really gives a shit. As far as I could tell while researching this post, there isn't a handy-dandy service like the IUCN which lists the conservation status of different plants in easy to understand terms from "feelin' groovy" to "oh fuck". What I did find was Nature Serve which lists Monotropa uniflora as G5, and N5 in the United States. That means that globally and US-nationally it is feelin' groovy. Good for the ghost plant.

Points: 1/1


Okay, I am ready to explain why it's important that ghost plants are heterotrophic now. The majority of plants (and other green things, and a lot of non-green things) produce their own food using photosynthesis. This method of production is called autotrophy (specifically, photoautotrophy), and it's the reason that plants don't have to eat anything. It's also the reason that they are green. Photosynthesis requires a coloured pigment to work, and the main pigment that plants use, chlorophyll, happens to be green (just FYI, different coloured pigments exist). Things that can't produce their own food, like animals, fungi, and ghost plants (and a shitload of other stuff), have to consume other organisms, which is called heterotrophy. Because heterotrophic plants don't photosynthesize, producing green pigment would be a waste of time, so they don't bother. As well, they don't need constant access to sunlight, so they can spend most of their lives growing in relative safety underground. So that's interesting.

Ghost plants are specifically myco-heterotrophic (or just "mycotrophic"). They are parasites of the symbiotic fungi (called mycorrhizae) that grow on tree roots. To break down what's happening step by step,
1) Regular plants make their own sugar from atmospheric carbon using the awesome power of the sun
2) Those regular plants give some of their sugar to the friendly mycorrhizae in exchange for help absorbing water and nutrients from the soil
3) Ghost plants don't give a fuck and straight up steal sugar from the mycorrhizae in exchange for nothing because they are freeloading assholes. Rude.

Points: 0/1


The closest relatives of the ghost plant are also myco-heterotrophs, but the broader group to which they belong contains mostly regular plants, like rhododendrons. Other heterotrophic plants exist, some of which parasitize root fungi (many species of orchids do this), and some parasitize host plants directly (e.g., broomrapes and the corpse lily, Rafflesia). This means that parasitism evolved separately multiple times in plants, rather than all at once, because it is a good strategy under certain conditions, like living in very low light environments. So the ghost plant is pretty smart for hopping on the parasite train to eke out an existence where other plants could not. You go, ghost plant.

Points: 1/1

Life History

So remember when I said that ghost plants are basically like fungi in that they live under ground, obtain nutrients from other organisms, and send their sex bits skyward when the time comes? They're also really not like fungi in how they reproduce. In fact, their reproductive strategy is the most plant-like thing about them. They produce flowers with nectar to attract bees for pollination, and make seeds just like any other plant. So really, one of the weirdest thing about them is that they're actually kind of normal.

Points: 0.5/1 for being basic af

Interaction with Humans

Ghost plants don't really affect humans one way or another. They're not medically relevant, either in terms of causing irritation, or by producing helpful compounds. They're not poisonous, but they're also not especially good eatin'. They don't parasitize economically valuable species in a way that causes significant damage. Their flowers are cool looking, but if you pick them they'll wither up and turn black, so they don't have any particular aesthetic value. And, unlike some mushrooms, humans don't seem to derive any special pleasure from smashing them. They're just over there doing their thing while we do ours, which is pretty cool in and of itself.

Points: 1/1

Final Score: 5.5/7
Turns out ghost plants hold their own in my animal based metric. They are pretty cool dudes.

Further Reading


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