Indian-pipe, or ghost flower, is startling enough to most people who don’t know it that they seek its name–see these threads on the UBC Botanical Garden forums for evidence. The reaction is understandable; the sight of a non-green plant is not an everyday occurrence.
Lacking chlorophyll, Monotropa uniflora cannot photosynthesize. It instead acquires carbon-rich photosynthates in another way: from a nearby tree, via a shared fungal root-association. The process is as follows: the tree photosynthesizes; the carbon-rich products of photosynthesis are transported from the leaves to the roots; the fungus receives a portion of the photosynthates in exchange for piping nutrients to the tree; and the Monotropa, tapped into the same fungus, snags some of those sugars for itself (the fungus also provides the Indian-pipe with most of the mineral nutrients it requires). This particular method of gaining nutrients is known as mycoheterotrophy. Steven Trudell of the University of Washington goes into more detail on this process here: “Fall Mushrooms, Ghostly Fungus-Robbers, and a Definition Revisited“. In central British Columbia at least, Young et al. (2001) found that Monotropa uniflora‘s fungal associations seem to be restricted to fungi in the family Russulaceae (PDF – some interesting microscopic photographs, as well).
Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, named the plant (hence the “L.” after the name in the scientific name). The Linnaean Herbarium, in Stockholm, Sweden, has a digitized herbarium specimen of the plant. Worth a look, if only to see the difference in colour between the living plant and a dried specimen.
On a personal note, my vacation starts next week. On the negative side, I won’t be including nearly as much written content with the photographs for several weeks. The images will have to stand on their own for most of the next month. On the flip side, though, is that I’m going to be taking plenty of plant and scenic photographs from the Rockies to the Canadian Shield and the prairie landscapes in between, many of which you will eventually see on Botany Photo of the Day.