A beautiful ghostly-white creature is popping up in forests around PEI right now. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s a fungus, but it’s actually a plant: meet Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora).
Ghost Pipe is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae) and so is related to blueberry, cranberry, huckleberry, and mayflower (among many others), but it makes its living in a very different way. Ghost Pipe is white because it has no chlorophyll – the green pigment that enables plants to convert sunlight into food. So, where does it get its food?
This plant forms a relationship with underground fungi (mycorrhizal fungi of Russula mushrooms). The fungi in turn have a relationship with the roots of nearby green plants, often conifer trees. The trees provide food to the fungi, and the fungi provide soil nutrients to the trees in a mutually beneficial relationship. But Ghost Pipes hijack this relationship and steal food from the fungi. So, these plants are actually getting food from nearby trees indirectly, by way of a fungus. How cool is that!
Ghost Pipe has been used traditionally to treat eye infections, skin wounds, sleep disorders, anxiety, chronic pain, and seizures (another common name is Convulsion Root). While some people do use this plant medicinally and report good results, this is not a plant for the novice. Ghost Pipe contains a number of bioactive chemicals including methyl salicylate and grayanotoxins. Methyl salicylate is a common pain reliever and the active ingredient over-the-counter muscle rubs such as Bengay and Icy Hot. Grayanotoxins are a group of nerve toxins most famous for their presence in “mad honey” (honey from bees who pollinated Rhodendrons, another member of the Heath Family).
Grayanotoxins have several effects on the body including lowering breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate – potentially to life-threatening levels if you take too much. There have been many cases of hospitalizations due to grayanotoxin poisoning, with patients requiring hospital stays ranging from one day to more than a week. While none of these were associated with Ghost Pipe, very little is known about the amount of grayantoxins in this plant or in products made from it. Because of this – and its highly specialized growth form – Ghost Pipe is not a plant that should be foraged in large quantity or used without thorough investigation.
Ghost Pipe is flowering now across the Island. Its season is short, and as flowers are pollinated they will face upwards, produce a seed pod, turn black, and release their seeds to the wind. You can find the black remnants well into the fall, but now is the best time to truly appreciate this beautiful and unique part of PEI untamed!