The Buzz

All-white ghost pipe is a ghoulish surprise on the forest floor

Ghost pipe growing on the forest floor.
Ghost pipe. (Photo by Matt Ruhter)

It's fair to say plant identification can be a little tricky for those of use who haven't spent much time studying the local flora, but there's one plant that pops up locally that is a cinch to ID. Ghost pipe, also known as ghost plant, Indian pipe or corpse plant, lacks chlorophyll, so it is white or pale pink in color, making it easy to spot in a sea of green. 

Ghost pipe typically blooms in late summer or early fall, so now is the time to see if you can spot this standout in the woods. They aren't large plants, typically growing between 4 inches to 8 inches tall, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Instead, it's their unusual color — or lack thereof — that will get your attention. The entire plant is white, not just the blooms, although small black flecks may be visible on the bloom and stem. The flowers grow from a single stem and face downward, with a drooping appearance. Although each plant produces only a single bloom, ghost pipe often grows in clusters, so you may spot a small group growing together. 

Ghost pipe can be found across most of the United States and much of Canada, although it does not grow in the Rocky Mountain region or in the desert Southwest, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It also grows in parts of Asia.

Although it has a large range in North America, you won't find these ghostly plants popping up just anywhere. Because it relies on tree roots to obtain the nutrients it needs to grow, ghost pipe grows in forested habitats, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. They are mostly commonly seen in moist soils in shady spots in forests or other wooded areas.

Because it doesn't look like other plants we see, people often believe ghost pipe is a fungus. It is a plant, though, even though it does not undergo photosynthesis like most other plants. Plants need chlorophyll — the pigment that gives them their green color — to make energy through photosynthesis. Because it has no chlorophyll, ghost pipe doesn't undergo photosynthesis. Instead, it gets necessary nutrients from surrounding trees.

Ghost pipe relies on mycorrhiza fungi to retrieve carbohydrates and other nutrients from surrounding tree roots, according to the forest service. These fungi have a mutually beneficial relationship with the trees because the fungi get necessary nutrients from the roots, like ghost pipe does, and the tree becomes more able to absorb from the surrounding soil as the fungi fibers becoming intertwined with the tree roots. 

Because of how ghost pipe retrieves nutrients from the soil, it is difficult to dig up and rarely survives being transplanted, the Missouri Department of Conservation reports. (Friendly reminder: It is illegal to remove anything — plants or otherwise — from the Will County forest preserves.) 

Thanks to its unusual appearance and behavior, ghost pipe has long been a source of delight and amazement. Event famous poet Emily Dickinson write about it, calling it "the preferred flower of life," the forest service reports.

While ghost pipe might seem like it exists in a world of its own when it comes to classification, it belongs to the heath family, or Ericaceae family, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Other more well-known members of this plant family include azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries and cranberries.

Latest Buzz

Five fast facts about easy-to-miss praying mantises


Praying mantises are among the largest insects we see, but that doesn't mean they are easy to find. Learn more about these insects that stand out at blending in.

Read more

When a weed is something more: Milkweed vital for many species


Have you heard the buzz about monarchs and milkweed? Monarchs are far from the only animals that rely on milkweed.

Read more