(Above) A Ghost orchid stem on a forest floor strewn with fallen leaves.
COMMON NAME: Ghost orchid
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Epipogium roseum
The Orchidaceae are a diverse and widespread family of flowering plants, known for their attractive blooms. Along with Asteraceae, they are one of the largest families of flowering plants in the world, with almost 30,000 accepted species. About 1200 species can be found in India, of which 275 are found in the Western Ghats.
Orchids have an interesting way of feeding themselves. Unlike other plants, orchid seeds have virtually no reserve energy to support the germinating plant. So they strike up a mutually beneficial relationship with a ‘fungal symbiont’. Basically, fungi that live in the orchids’ roots help the orchid absorb nutrients from the soil, in return for carbon fixed through photosynthesis. Once the orchid matures, it is usually capable of supporting itself.
Ghost orchids, however, are different. They grow on the dark forest floors, where sunlight is scant. They have completely lost their ability to photosynthesise, and rely totally on their symbiotic relationship with fungi. The biggest sign of this is that the plant appears almost completely white, lacking any chlorophyll or leaves. The orchids' roots are in direct connection with the fungi, which in turn derive nutrients either from dead organic matter in the soil or from surrounding plant roots. Ghost orchids, named for their deathly, lifeless appearance, are therefore ‘epi-parasites’: parasites that live on other parasites.
(Left) The ghost orchid isn't the only achlorophyllus plant in the Western Ghats. In 2003, this rare endemic magenta ghost flower (Christisonia tubulosa) was rediscovered after 90 years.
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