National

Translucent ‘ghost plant’ that resembles dead flesh found in Great Smoky Mountains

Indian pipe, called ghost plant, is a forest parasite that grows in the shadows in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Indian pipe, called ghost plant, is a forest parasite that grows in the shadows in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Facebook screenshot/Great Smoky Mountains National park

Creepy things -- from wild boar to rattlesnakes -- roam in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains, but the National Park Service is warning visitors that one of the most unnerving sights could be a so-called “ghost plant.”

Also known as the “corpse plant,” this mythical forest growth resembles human flesh: “Translucent, ‘ghostly’ white, sometimes pale pinkish-white,” according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Imagine human fingers, drained of all blood, reaching through the rotting forest undergrowth.

“Indian pipe, also called ghost plant,...is a forest parasite,” the National Park Service says in a June 24 Facebook post. “Growing in the shadows of the trees, these plants get their energy from the fungus that grow on tree roots.”

In other words, they grow with little need of the sun.

“The fungi extend in a web-like way through the dead, rotting leaves and connect to the roots of a tree to form a symbiotic relationship,” according to naturalheritage.com.

“If you’ve ever seen them growing in the woods, it’s easy to see where they got their common names,” says the Appalachian Medicine site Blind Pig and the Acorn. “The white almost translucent look of the spindly nodding plant is eerie enough to conjure up the images of Ghosts or even Death.”

Among the many mysteries swirling around Indian Pipe is the fact that “nothing seems to eat it,” notes Iowa State botany expert Ryan Drum. “I ate an ounce or more of the young flowers and stalks and was slightly nauseous. I did not want to eat it again,” he wrote in a study of the plant.

However, Indian Pipe is considered medicinal, with Medicinal Plants of the Northeast noting it can be used to treat everything from bunions to convulsions.

Native American folklore has a variety of explanations for the plant’s odd appearance, including one tale that The Great Spirit grew weary of tribes squabbling amongst themselves and resorted to turning the tribal council “into small silvery gray flowers, their heads bent over and their petals hoary,” according to angelfire.com.

Watch a silent archival video of President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940. Video courtesy of Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, the Thompson Family Collection.

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