the other corpse plant

This afternoon, as I walked Phoebe down our road to a neighbor’s house for a playdate, a strange plant caught my eye on the roadside. Emerging from the brown fallen leaves were some bundles of waxy-looking stalks with what looked like bell-shaped flowers on top. They were almost totally white. I don’t just mean that the flowers were white. The whole plant was white: stems, leaves and flowers. All white.

I bent down to take a few photos with my trusty iPhone. After chatting with my neighbor about school supply lists and other exciting news, I completely forgot about the weird plant.

This evening, I remembered. A quick google search (for “white plant”) led me to the identification of the Monotropa uniflora, also known as Indian Pipe (they do look sort of pipe-like), ghost plant (they definitely look on the ghostly side) as well as corpse plant.

When I did a google search for “corpse plant,” however, I was greeted not by images of this guy, but by stories about the more famous, but similarly nicknamed, corpse flower. In case you missed hearing about it, the corpse flower is a giant flower that blooms only every few years, and not even on a regular schedule at that. Sometimes it will go a decade or more between blooms. But it is not its blooming timeline or even its massive size (8 feet tall!) for which the titan arum gets its fame, but from its smell: it is said to smell like a rotting corpse. The corpse flower was in the news quite a bit last month, as one living in the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory in Washington DC bloomed, bringing in over 130,000 visitors to sample the putrescent delights of this this olfactory oddity with their own nostrils. (Boston has one, too, apparently, but I have neither seen nor smelled it. I am tickled that it is named Morticia, though, and hope to visit her someday.)

Anyhow, this post is (mostly) not about that corpse flower, but the less famous, and much less smelly flowering corpse plant. While not nearly as dramatic, it is still a bit of a botanical oddity. This plant, you see, has no chlorophyll. As such, it is not able to produce its own food, but must live off of other plants. Specifically, it lives off certain trees and fungi. Unlike many fungi, which give something back to the host trees on which they live, the corpse plant only takes. It is parasitic. And I’m thinking kind of vampiric.

I hope to go back another day with my real camera to get some clearer shots, but I don’t know how long these things bloom. Apparently they will dry out and turn black fairly soon. I find it remarkable that I had never seen them before, nor heard of them. From what I can tell, they are fairly rare. I suppose that it caught my eye due to my recently heightened roadside plant awareness–we are always keeping our eyes open to avoid stepping in a tangle of poison ivy (which is lush and green and sadly, not rare at all).