No, this is not a derogatory term. It is actually a scientific category in Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon. And last week while hiking in a local forest a particular species of oddball was popping up everywhere.
“Oddballs” according to this popular botanical guide are plants that cannot turn sunshine into food. They are not green and contain no chlorophyll. Instead of being capable of photosynthesis, they get their nutrition in a variety of ways—by being insect eating, or saprophytic (living on dead and decaying vegetation), or parasitic (getting nutrition from a living plant/tree).
Indian Pipe or ghost plant is parasitic. It obtains its nutrition indirectly from the roots of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and other conifers. Indirectly? Yes, these little ghost plants connect to conifers via microscopic pipes formed by a combination of fungal filaments and plant roots. These microscopic pipes are called mycorrhiza (meaning fungus-root).
Oh the mysteries of what lies beneath our feet in the forest! The remarkable neural network of the forest is just beginning to be understood by scientists. The work of Dr. Suzanne Simard, University of British Colombia, on communication and nutrient exchange between trees and other plants in the forest will be the subject of another blog.
Last month my blog was about walking through the forest at the moment that my namesake flower, Linnea borealis, was blooming everywhere. This month it was my great good luck to be walking during the time of the bloom of the ghost plants. A walk in nature is an open door to wonder and mystery always waiting for us to walk through.