Many woodland plants deal with decreased sunlight by blooming early in spring when leaf cover is sparse or nonexistent. But our subject species, Indian pipe, adapts to the darkened woods of autumn by getting its nutrients from the forest floor, versus sunlight. It is one of the few true plants that does not have chlorophyll, meaning it is not dependent on photosynthesis. So it can live in the darkest of forests. Spooky, right? Come on, work with me here. This adaptation is made possible because it relies on a mutualism with a certain type of root fungus. Normally found in a moist humus, it may be spotted from June through November but I normally notice it in September and October.
Indian pipe’s dependence on the fungus makes it the parasite of a parasite. The fungus it relies on parasitizes trees, often beech, and it is a fungus, referred to as mycorrhiza, that grows in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic relationship. Furthermore, growing in relationship with dead or decaying organic matter and lacking chlorophyll, Indian pipe is considered saprophytic. Because of these connections it can’t be transplanted, and it only exists in certain habitats. But it is not considered rare because these habitats are abundant. In fact, it exists in nearly all of the lower 48 states, Alaska, and Canada.
It is absent from the southwest and intermountain west and central Rockies. Worldwide there are 12 genera and 30 different species.
Indian pipe has other common names like ghost plant and corpse plant, “ghost” because of its translucent white stems. The plant can also be a light shade of pink. The scaly look of its stem is caused by its alternate leaves. When inverted you can see inside the cup made by its four or five petals. The flower head is half an inch to one inch long and nods downward. The stems are three to nine inches in length. Its proper name is Monotropa uniflora, mono meaning one and tropos meaning turn together, denoting that all the flower heads face in the same direction, in this instance downward. The pendulous flowers turn nearly upright after pollination. When it fully matures it becomes black, thus the common name “corpse.” Each stalk has one flower, therefore uniflora.
The ghostly appearance and lack of chlorophyll led me to erroneously believe, like many people, that it was a fungus. But it is vascular plant, bearing seeds, with a flower, and it belongs to the Monotropeceae family.
Evidently, it is edible and tastes somewhat like asparagus when cooked. However it has a mild toxicity and is not a recommended food item. Picking it is without merit in that it quickly turns black. Leave it alone to provide its mutually beneficial forest services!
Many articles mentioned that Native Americans utilized the plant for eye ailments. Plants for a Future cites infusion of the root as “Antispasmodic, hypnotic, nervine, sedative tonic.” It goes on to suggest, “It is a good remedy for spasms, fainting spells and various nervous conditions. It has been given to children who suffer from fits, epilepsy and convulsions.” Hmmm, I think we should all pass on ingesting it.
Decaying matter – fungus – corpse plant – ghost plant – the darkest of woods – the white stands out from the shadows – parasite of a parasite – toxic, I don’t know about you but I’m really spooked out and ready for Halloween. Boo!
USDA Plant Database
Wildflower of Eastern America, Klimas and Cunningham
Wild Flowers of America, Reynolds
North American Wildflowers, National Audubon
Wildflowers of Pensylvania, Haywood and Monk