Friday, 6 September 2013

Taxon of the Day: Monotropa uniflora

A gang of Monotropa uniflora

Monotropa uniflora L. from the plant family Ericaceae is commonly known as Indian Pipe, Ghost plant, Ice plant or Corpse plant. It is an established but hard to find inhabitant of coniferous forest understory found in parts of North America as listed by ITIS regional through the Catalogue of Life. It is also reported to be found in parts of Asia, northern South America and northern Europe. 

The plant is quite a sight and is often found in a bunch with others starkly shooting up from the dark ground. The plant's lack of green is a result of the absence of chlorophyll as it doesn't need sunlight to grow, allowing it to inhabit the shadiest of places. Instead it has a beneficial, symbiotic relationship with the fungi that lives in the soil around it; where the fungi absorbs nutrients of decaying vegetation whilst Monotropa uniflora, through its roots, in turn feeds off of the fungi. Unlike the mycorrhizal mutualistic relationship of the fungi with its surrounding vegetation, this plant gives nothing back so is considered parasitic. 

The etymology of this plant describes different aspects of its appearance and growth habit. Where uniflora refers to the fact that a stem usually ends in one flower (ie uni -one, flora-flower) and monotropa means 'one turn' 
(down to up) which the flowerhead will do when matures to fruit. When in flower the head hangs down and 'Pipe' refers to the stem and head looking like the stem and bowl of a pipe. The Indian bit possibly relates to its visual similarity to a calumet, the ceremonial smoking pipe of indigenous american peoples, or the many medicinal uses they found for this plant. Ghost flower alludes to its pure whiteness and general elusiveness to anyone that would like to see it.

The plants emerge above ground in summer and once fertilised the head bends up and the whole plant turns black giving rise to another of its common names 'Corpse plant'. It produces fruits before autumn and disperses them until the following spring. If you pick one it will also turn black and dissolve in your hand. Wild plants that can not be transported or grown in our gardens have a special mystique and allure and Monotropa uniflora is one such plant.



CoL Annual Checklist: Monotropa uniflora
CoL contributor: ITIS Regional
Image copyright: Sage Ross [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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