By Chris Engle, contributor
If you’re in the forest this fall at the right place and time, you just might see a ghost.
The woods of Northern Michigan are home to one of North America’s scarcest and strangest flowers: Monotropa uniflora, the ghost plant. It’s also known as Indian pipe but, with Halloween on the horizon, I prefer its more macabre name, the corpse plant.
This tiny flower should not be confused with the giant tropical plant of the same name, known for its blossoms which give off a pungent aroma of rotting bodies. Be thankful we don’t have those here.
Michigan’s corpse plants stand only a few inches tall. They are usually found in clusters of 5 or 10 stalks, each one curled over in a cane shape and tipped with a bell-like flower.
Even stranger than its name is its color: The whole plant, from root to tip, is translucent white.
We all learned in elementary school that plants use chlorophyll to turn sunlight into energy. Chlorophyll is green, thus so are most plants. The ghost flower is not like most plants in that it lacks chlorophyll – hence it’s white color – so it needs another way to find food.
Enter the mushroom, which there are plenty of at the Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord. The corpse plant acts as a sort of parasite by stealing its nutrition from mushrooms which steal their nutrition from photosynthetic plants. Those particular fungi use mycorrhizae – a really cool word for fungus roots joined with plant roots – to obtain their food from trees. The corpse plant takes some of that energy to sustain itself. To me this seems more like an act of a zombie rather than a corpse but I’m no scientist.
Because it needs these particular living conditions, the plant is somewhat rare. They’re also easily overlooked in the thick cover of forests where they grow.
That’s where the Sturgeon River pathway comes in. In 2011 a 40-acre piece of property bordering the wild river was purchased by a private party and donated to Gaylord-based HeadWaters Land Conservancy with the intent of turning it into a public preserve.
Since then, volunteers and local Boy Scouts worked incredibly hard to cut two short trail loops. They terraced steep hills to make safe and walkable trails throughout the property. While they avoided the riverbank as a way to protect it from erosion, the trail planners made sure to cover all elevations of the land to give hikers a great cross section of the variety of cover types there. In a few minutes’ walk the forest changes from upland ferns standing 4 feet tall to marshy wetland and cedar swamp.
In between the transitions are all kinds of places to find corpse plants and mushrooms. During a hike last week I photographed a dozen different mushroom varieties and saw at least a dozen more, including yellow and white-spotted toadstools, fluorescent orange witches’ butter and many others I couldn’t identify.
Some toadstools there are stark white, leading me to believe they could be destroying angels, one of the most deadly mushrooms there is – as if its name didn’t give that away already. I can’t be sure but, either way, I strongly advise against eating any mushroom without knowing darn sure what it is.
The fall colors will be erupting soon but remember, some of the best color will be found at your feet and some of the most interesting plants will have no color at all.
Sturgeon River Preserve information
Location: Whitmarsh Road, east off Old 27 North, where the road crosses the river.15-20 minutes from Gaylord.
Specs: Two short trail loops on 40 acres. The trail is steepest at its entrance. Hiking time: 30-40 minutes. No restroom.
Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.