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What Is a Ghost Flower?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A ghost flower is one of two very different species of flower. One, native to arid and desert regions of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, is Mohavea confertiflora and is called the ghost flower because of its ephemeral nature and its pale, almost translucent petals. The other is a flower often called indian pipe, or ghost plant, native to temperate forests on at least three continents, whose scientific name is Montropa uniflora. While a true plant, it is a very unusual type of plant, lacking chlorophyll and getting its food, not from photosynthesis, but from parasitizing certain types of fungi. It is sometimes called ghost flower because of its pale, ghostly appearance.

The desert species known as ghost flower is a small annual found in the southwest deserts of the United States and northern Mexico, the Mojave and Sonoran desert regions in particular. It is a member of the figwort family and is related to snapdragons and Penstemon. In the spring, depending on conditions, numerous flowers, single and in small clusters, are borne on branching stems with narrow, hairy leaves. Some years, these flowers may not bloom in some areas if there is insufficient rainfall.

The flowers of the desert ghost flower are cup-shaped, white to pale yellow, with delicate, almost translucent petals. Red, pinkish, or crimson spots color the center, with a lower petal having a larger, usually darker spot and with a pair of yellow stamens that arch downward. This flower has no nectar of its own but mimics another desert flower that does, essentially fooling bees into visiting it, facilitating pollination.

The Indian pipe which is sometimes called ghost flower is a very unusual type of plant called a myco-heterotroph. Plants of this type parasitize certain types of fungi, getting their food from them instead of through photosynthesis. These flowers are called ghost flower because of their ghostly, pale appearance, entirely lacking in any green pigments due to the lack of chlorophyll. They are sometimes mistaken for fungi themselves due to their appearance and are found in temperate forests of the northern hemisphere. They are somewhat rare but may appear in large numbers within in a small area when found.

The forest type of ghost flower is a smallish flower, reaching approximately 8 inches (20 cm) in height with a single, down-turned flower on a single unbranched stem. It has small leaves and is found in clusters of several flowers packed tightly together. The color can vary from pure, pale white to pinkish, mauve or grey, and may even be mottled.

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