Ghost plant

Walking on a country road in Barre, Massachusetts, last week, I came across what looked like a bunch of mushrooms growing under some dense trees:

Ghost plant clusters

They were ghostly white and clumped in little groups the way toadstools are often clumped. I figured they must be the fruiting bodies of some underground mass of fungus. But looking closer, I saw that the tops of the little things resembled bell-shaped flowers, turned downward. Were they fungus or flowering plants?

Ghost plant closeup

I looked closer and didn’t see any green at all — no chlorophyll. The shoots looked damp and clammy, slightly translucent. I figured they must be some kind of fungus that for some reason had adapted to look like a flower.

They were strange and beautiful, some kind of fairy-flower.

Ghost plant

I came back the next day, on the last morning of the meditation retreat I was attending, and snapped the pictures above with my cell-phone camera. (The patch was, as far as I can tell, just about exactly where the big cluster of tress is at the center of this map.)

On the drive home I googled “white flower fungus” and learned the truth about the things. It turns out they’re actually plants, Monotropa uniflora, known as Indian Pipe, Ghost Plant, or Corpse Plant. They don’t photosynthesize but instead are myco-heterotrophs, plants that derive their nutrients from a parasitic relationship with fungi — which explains the particular clustering in the patch I found. The fungi in turn are mycorrhizal, meaning they live off of the roots of other plants, in this case trees. So the ghost plants are getting food from the photosynthetic efforts of other plants by means of a third party, the mycorrhyzal fungus.

This discovery was slightly mind-blowing — I’d never heard of that kind of relationship before, although it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s been discussed in some nature documentary or other that I’ve missed since moving to an apartment without basic cable several years ago. Or are there more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of by David Attenborough stand-ins?

The whole week leading up to finding the ghost plants I’d spent meditating, a slightly different method than last summer’s retreat but still in silence, still with bells to signal when it was time to sit, time to do walking meditation, and time to eat.

The first three days of the retreat were breathing meditation, to calm and focus the mind (cultivating samadhi, or stability of mind). The next three days were vipassana meditation, and the particular style our teacher taught us he called “choiceless awareness”: you simply sit and allow your awareness to follow whatever arises in the mind, whether it’s a sensory input like a sound or some thought or mood or emotion. It’s a remarkable method that, when it works, can illuminate places in the soul that normally you’d rather not look into. It’s also difficult, both because it is easy to get carried away by what you’re supposed to be remaining aware of, and because awareness in this case requires a tremendous degree of vulnerability, of letting your guard down. What saves you is the simple fact that everything that arises also passes away, no matter how painful or how blissful.

In six days of meditating, I came across a few things in my own head that are probably stranger than the ghost plant. (Nothing outside what the order of nature can embrace — we humans like to think we’re outside of nature, but that’s just vanity, as far as I can tell.) I won’t go into them here, since I doubt anyone else would find them interesting. Not everything was pleasant; at one point I spent ten or fifteen minutes sobbing, only to be laughing ten minutes later when the storm of grief had passed and cleared the air. In some ways it was like being a child but maintaining the best of what I’ve become as an adult.

Finding the ghost plants, then, was perfect: It turns out I’d been losing the capacity to be surprised, and it was great to get it back.

6 responses to “Ghost plant”

  1. swells says:

    I was delighted enough that the TGW post for the day was going to be a thoughtful discovery of a new plant; I was already so tickled by its testament to the the variety of topics on the site. Then when you wove it in to this personal experience so well: Magnificent.

  2. Tim says:

    Loved this. The capacity for wonder, I feel, is crucial to a well-lived life. How easy it is to lose it, and how wonderful to feel its return.

    When I was growing up, we called this plant “Indian Pipe,” and I always thought it was simply a fungus. What a bizarre and fascinating symbiosis!

    Coincidentally, Jen and I saw so-called “Snow Plants” (although they’re bright red) a couple weeks ago when we were camping in the Sierras. It turns out they’re also mycoheterotrophs.

  3. Scotty says:

    Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I find myself questioning my faith: the whole no-god thing.

  4. Beautful pix — I didn’t know about this plant before, thanks. What’s striking me as really weird is that it’s a flowering plant, in a family that includes lots of photosynthesizing species — so the whole codependency with mycorrhizal fungi thing evolved in a species that could photosynthesize, which subsequently no longer needed clorophyll and stopped producing it.

  5. Cool, both the plant and the meditation thing.

  6. lane says:

    “It turns out I’d been losing the capacity to be surprised, and it was great to get it back.”

    This sounds like one of your major insights. It is a tricky one too. Living in the cultural capital and all . . .