Unusual Plant Series #1: The Indian Pipe, A Ghostly Flowering Plant

Plants have always interested me and when I imagine the myriad of different careers I might have chosen, a botanist or a even horticulturalist easily comes to mind. In the last couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe some unusual plants, right in my own backyard or neighborhood.

Last fall, I saw my first Indian Pipe plant or Monotropa uniflora, also known as Ghost Plant. It is a perennial wildflower with a wide range but not commonly seen. As the Latin name indicates, each plant bears only one flower, anytime from early summer to early fall. The most common habitat for Indian Pipe is in mature, shaded forests. Hence, this is the setting where I saw this plant last year. It was growing in plain sight right in our own conifer-hardwood forest at our lakeside cabin property in northern Wisconsin.  There are cedar needle castings, along with a layer of birch and maple leaves covering the heavily shaded forest floor. As I looked further, there were numerous clumps of Indian pipe growing, some just sprouted with drooping heads and others upright, signaling a mature seed capsule. You can be sure I’ll look for it again this year. It is not, as some might think, a fungi, but a flowering plant that disperses seed. (U.S. Forest Service, 2021).

However, it is a fungus-feeding plant, attaching itself to fungi that resides on the roots of host plants, according to the U. S. Forest Service: These plants obtain their organic carbon from a host green plant by tapping into an intermediary mycorrhizal fungus attached to the roots of the host plant.” Formerly, these plants were known as saprophytic, but this was found to be an inaccurate description of how the plant derived its food.

The forest service goes on to explain: “Since they cannot make their own “food,” the mysterious mycotrophic wildflowers take this symbiotic relationship between tree and fungus one-step further. Mycotrophic plants “tap” into and parasitize the hyphae of a mycorrhizal fungus by reversing the flow of carbon (derived from the host tree) and other nutrients to meet their survival needs. The unlucky fungus “feeds” the parasitic wildflower and receives nothing in return.” (U.S. Forest Service, 2021). A Wisconsin Public Radio author, Susan Knight, explains the biology of the plant well in this article published in October of 2020 near Wausau, Wisconsin – surprisingly not far from our cabin!

Indian Pipe was once written about by the famed poet, Emily Dickinson, who seemed fascinated with the plant. Monotropa uniflora also has a long history, and may date back to the Jurassic period of our planet’s development, which might account for its wide distribution. A Cherokee Legend as well as more information and photographs regarding the plant can be found on this webpage. Of course, Native Americans found medicinal uses for the Indian Pipe plant as well.

The fact that such unusual plants exist is a lesson in humility, indeed!

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