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Ghost Orchid

Epipogium aphyllum

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Plant Profile

Flowering Months:
Orchidaceae (Orchid)
Life Cycle:
Maximum Size:
25 centimetres tall

Yellow, 5 petals
Pale creamy yellow or pinkish flowers. The flower has a bent back lip, approximately 7mm across. The stout spur is white and upward-pointing. 3 of the 5 petals are actually sepals. Stalks may contain up to 4 flowers each. Pollinated by bees.
The fruit is a capsule. The seeds in the capsule are small and dust-like.
Ghost Orchids are leafless. The entire plant is a pinkish-yellow colour. They are difficult to spot as they are so well camouflaged. Ghost orchids are most likely to be found growing in deep-shaded Beech woods on chalky soil. Very rare.
The flowers have a sickly smell.
Frequency (UK):
Rarely seen  

Other Information


Epipogium aphyllum, also known as the ghost orchid, is a species of orchid native to Europe and Asia. It is an underground herb, with small, inconspicuous, white flowers that bloom in summer. The plant does not have any leaves and its photosynthesis is performed by myco-heterotrophic, meaning that it lives in a symbiotic relationship with fungi, which it uses to obtain energy from. This orchid is considered to be a rare species and it is protected by law in some countries. It is also difficult to cultivate, as it requires specific growing conditions and a specific type of fungus to survive.


The Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, is a rare and elusive species of orchid that is native to tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including Asia, Australia, and the Americas. This unique orchid is known for its ghostly appearance and mysterious behavior, which has captured the attention of orchid enthusiasts and scientists alike.

One of the most striking features of the Ghost Orchid is its lack of leaves. Unlike most other orchids, the Ghost Orchid does not produce any green leaves or stems, making it one of the only leafless orchids in the world. Instead, the plant relies entirely on its roots to absorb nutrients and moisture from the surrounding soil and air.

The Ghost Orchid also has a unique flowering habit. It typically blooms in the late summer or early fall, producing a single, white flower that can measure up to six inches in diameter. The flower has a delicate, ethereal quality, with long, slender petals and a central lip that is decorated with intricate patterns and markings.

Despite its beauty, the Ghost Orchid is notoriously difficult to find in the wild. The plant is typically found growing in dense, swampy forests and wetlands, where it can be easily obscured by the surrounding vegetation. In addition, the Ghost Orchid is known to have a very specific set of environmental requirements, including high humidity, cool temperatures, and low light levels, which can make it difficult to cultivate in a controlled environment.

Despite these challenges, the Ghost Orchid has become an object of fascination for many people. In recent years, the plant has gained particular attention thanks to the bestselling book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, which chronicles the search for the Ghost Orchid in the wilds of Florida. The book was later adapted into a feature film, Adaptation, starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep.

In addition to its cultural significance, the Ghost Orchid also has important ecological and conservation implications. Because the plant is so rare and difficult to find, little is known about its biology and ecology, including its pollination habits and habitat requirements. Scientists are currently studying the plant in an effort to better understand its role in the ecosystem and to develop strategies for protecting it from extinction.

Despite its elusive nature, some orchid enthusiasts have attempted to cultivate the Ghost Orchid in controlled environments. However, the plant has proven to be extremely difficult to grow, with only a handful of successful attempts reported.

One of the key challenges in cultivating the Ghost Orchid is reproducing its complex root system. Unlike other orchids, which produce aerial roots that can absorb moisture and nutrients from the air, the Ghost Orchid has subterranean roots that require a specific type of fungus to grow and thrive. This fungus, known as a mycorrhiza, forms a symbiotic relationship with the Ghost Orchid, providing it with nutrients in exchange for carbon compounds produced by the plant.

In the wild, the Ghost Orchid relies on a specific species of mycorrhiza to grow, making it difficult to replicate this relationship in a controlled environment. Some researchers have attempted to isolate the mycorrhiza from wild Ghost Orchid populations and cultivate it in the lab, with mixed success. Others have experimented with using different types of mycorrhiza, with varying degrees of success.

Despite these challenges, some orchid enthusiasts have managed to cultivate the Ghost Orchid in captivity. In 2016, a Florida botanist named Michael Kane reported successfully cultivating several Ghost Orchid plants in a controlled environment. Kane's success was attributed in part to his use of a specially formulated nutrient solution, which he developed after years of trial and error.

In addition to its aesthetic and ecological value, the Ghost Orchid has also played a significant role in traditional medicine in some cultures. In China, for example, the plant has been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, including fever, cough, and asthma. However, because the Ghost Orchid is so rare and difficult to find, its use in traditional medicine has been largely supplanted by other, more readily available plants.

The Ghost Orchid has also been the subject of several scientific studies aimed at understanding its ecological role and conservation needs. One of the key questions that researchers have sought to answer is how the plant is pollinated in the wild. Because the Ghost Orchid produces no nectar, it was long thought to be self-pollinating or to rely on wind pollination. However, recent research has shown that the plant is in fact pollinated by a species of moth called the Giant Sphinx Moth.

The Giant Sphinx Moth is a large, nocturnal moth with a long proboscis that is perfectly adapted to pollinating the Ghost Orchid. When the moth visits the flower, it unfurls its long proboscis and probes deep into the central lip of the flower, where it picks up and deposits pollen. Because the Ghost Orchid blooms at night, the Giant Sphinx Moth is the plant's primary pollinator, ensuring the continuation of the species.

The discovery of the Giant Sphinx Moth as the Ghost Orchid's pollinator has important implications for the conservation of the plant. Because the moth is critical to the plant's survival, efforts to protect the Ghost Orchid must also take into account the habitat requirements of the moth. This includes preserving not just the Ghost Orchid itself, but also the surrounding ecosystem and the various species that depend on it.

In recent years, conservation efforts aimed at protecting the Ghost Orchid and its habitat have been gaining momentum. In Florida, for example, the state's Department of Environmental Protection has designated several areas as critical habitat for the plant, where it is protected from development and other human activities. Researchers are also working to develop better methods for cultivating the plant in controlled environments, with the hope of one day being able to reintroduce it to the wild in areas where it has been lost.

In conclusion, the Ghost Orchid is a fascinating and enigmatic plant that continues to captivate the imaginations of scientists, orchid enthusiasts, and nature lovers around the world. Its unique appearance, mysterious behavior, and ecological importance make it a valuable subject of study and conservation, and a symbol of the incredible diversity and beauty of the natural world.

Facts about the Ghost Orchid

Here are some facts and a summary about the Ghost Orchid:

  • The Ghost Orchid, also known as Epipogium aphyllum, is a rare and elusive plant that is native to humid, swampy forests in Asia, Australia, and the Americas.

  • The plant is known for its ethereal beauty and unique appearance, with white or pale green flowers that seem to float in mid-air.

  • The Ghost Orchid is a mycoheterotrophic plant, which means it relies on a specific type of fungus, known as a mycorrhiza, to provide it with nutrients.

  • The plant has a complex root system that makes it difficult to cultivate in controlled environments, and it is considered one of the most difficult orchids to grow.

  • The Ghost Orchid is pollinated by a species of moth called the Giant Sphinx Moth, which is critical to the plant's survival.

  • The plant has played a significant role in traditional medicine in some cultures, although its rarity has limited its use.

  • The Ghost Orchid is a valuable subject of study and conservation, and efforts are underway to protect the plant and its habitat, as well as to develop better methods for cultivating it in controlled environments.

In summary, the Ghost Orchid is a rare and enigmatic plant that is known for its ethereal beauty, complex root system, and reliance on a specific type of fungus for nutrients. The plant is pollinated by a species of moth and has played a role in traditional medicine in some cultures. Efforts are underway to protect the plant and its habitat, and to develop better methods for cultivating it in controlled environments.

Distribution Map

Reproduced by kind permission of the BSBI.

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