The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Poetic Science of the Ghost Pipe: Emily Dickinson and the Secret of Earth’s Most Supernatural Flower

In the late autumn of 1890, four years after Emily Dickinson’s death, her poems met the world for the first time in a handsome volume bound in white. Beneath the gilded title was a flower painting by Mabel Loomis Todd — the complicated woman chiefly responsible for editing and publishing Dickinson’s poems and letters.

Any flower would have been a fitting emblem for the poet who spent her life believing that “to be a Flower is profound Responsibility,” but none more than this one — a flower she had collected in the woods of Amherst as “a wondering Child,” then pressed into her teenage herbarium and into her poems, enchanted by its “almost supernatural” appearance.

She considered it “the preferred flower of life.”

Monotropa uniflora, known as ghost pipe, is unlike the vast majority of plants on Earth. White as bone, it lacks the chlorophyll by which other plants capture photons and turn light into sugar for life.

Throughout the summer — usually after rainfall, usually under beech trees — the ghost pipe emerges from the darkest regions of the forest floor in clusters, from the Himalayas to Costa Rica to Amherst. Each stem bears a single nodding flower — a tiny chandelier of several translucent petals encircling its dozen stamens and single pistil. Bumblebees, drawn to the pale beauty despite their astonishing ultraviolet vision, are the ghost pipe’s most passionate pollinators.

Monotropa uniflora. (Photograph: Walter Siegmund.)

The secret of Earth’s most “supernatural” flower is its uncommon relationship with the rest of nature:

Rather than reaching up for sunlight like green plants, the ghost pipe reaches down. Its cystidia — the fine hairs coating its roots — entwine around the branching filaments of underground fungi, known as hyphae. So connected, the ghost pipe begins to sap nutrients the fungus has drawn from the roots of nearby photosynthetic trees.

Out of this second-hand survival, such breathtaking beauty.

The mystery of how the ghost pipe flourishes without chlorophyll has enchanted scientists since the dawn of botany. The answer began bubbling up with the discovery of the mycorrhizal network undergirding the forest — a term coined in 1885 by the German botanist, plant pathologist, and mycologist Albert Bernhard Frank, from the Greek mykos (fungus) and rhiza (root). But for nearly a century, the mycorrhizal network — and its relation to the mystery of the ghost pipe — remained a purely theoretical notion, until in 1960 the Swedish botanist Erik Björkman used sugars laced with the radioactive carbon-14 isotope to trace how nutrients move between trees and nearby ghost pipes via the underground fungi.

It was a revelatory notion — an entirely new type of relationship we had never before imagined, as old as the living world.

Less than a century later, we know that 90% of plants rely on these mycorrhizal relationships for their survival — an interdependence for which the English botanist David Read coined the term “the Wood Wide Web,” to describe the groundbreaking research of Canadian plant ecologist Suzanne Simard, who furnished the definitive evidence for it in the 1990s.

Pressed ghost pipe from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, labeled in her hand.

By late autumn, the ghost pipe has turned black and brittle. By winter, it has vanished.

“That it will never come again,” Dickinson wrote, “is what makes life so sweet.”

From the brevity and beauty of the ghost pipe’s bloom emerges a tender living poem about the transience of life, about its mystery, about the delicate interdependence that deepens its sweetness.

Complement with a Dickinson-inspired adventure in nature’s nonbinary botany and some Dickinson-lensed reflections on the flower and the meaning of life, then relish the ongoing mystery of chlorophyll.

Published August 23, 2023




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