Ghost plants

Plant & zo

The science of plants and more

Ghost plants

Plants and the colour green are inseparable connected. Plants are green due to their chlorophyl, the small organelles where photosynthesis takes place. Still there are plants that, irrespective of the advantages of making your own energy, chose to chuck their chlorophyl out. Without chlorophyl these plants have a ghostly appearance and get their nutrients through feeding of fungi. These ghost plants are difficult to distinguish, but Japanese researchers have discovered a new species.

The ghost plant species Monotropastrum humile is widely distributed. This completely white plant consists of a scaly stem with a chalice-like flower. Together about 5 cm tall. Sometimes the researchers noticed, the flowers had rosy pink appearance. At first, they assumed that this was a variation of M. humile. But closer study revealed that this was not the case.

The first clue that it could be a different species came after studying the flowering time. The researchers noticed that the plants with white flowers flowered in May. But only in June, when the white flowers finished flowering, the plants with the pink flowers flowered.

Monotropastrum kirishimense a new chlorophyl less plant species

To gather more evidence, to make sure that they really had two different species, the researchers compared the genome of 42 ghost plants. The phylogenetic tree that they created based on the 42 genomes showed a clear separation into two branches. One branch consisted out of ghost plants with pink flowers, while the other branch contained the white flowering ghost plants.

The last piece of evidence to show that they dealt with two different species the researchers got when they zoomed in on the fungi the plants feed of. While the pink flowering ghost plants had a clear preference for a single fungi species, the white flowering plants were feeding of a broader range of fungi.

A new species also needs a new name. The Japanese researchers have named the pink flowering ghost plants after the place of their discovery: Kirishima in the Japanse Kagoshima Prefecture. That why their name is Monotropastrum kirishimense.


Suetsugu, K., Hirota, S.K., Hsu, TC., Kurogi, S., Imamura, A., and Suyama , Y. (2022) Monotropastrum kirishimense (Ericaceae), a new mycoheterotrophic plant from Japan based on multifaceted evidence. J Plant Res.

Published by Femke de Jong

A plant scientist who wants to let people know more about the wonders of plant science. Follow me at @plantandzo

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