Featured Creature: Ghost Pipes


What plant generates energy without photosynthesis, thrives in darkness, is said to quell anxieties, and was cherished by American poet Emily Dickinson?

That would be Monotropa, also known as “Ghost Pipes”, “Ghost Plants”, “Indian Pipes”, and “Corpse Plants”, among other names!

Photo from Oceana Conservation District

The three species of ghost pipes are generally rare and native to temperate regions of Asia, North America, and northern South America. Unlike most plants they lack chlorophyll and can’t photosynthesize. Instead, they act as parasites to obtain their food, feeding off  mycorrhizal fungi below the surface of the forest floor. 

Those fungi are in turn linked underground to the trees of the forest, so monotropa gets its food ultimately from sugars photosynthesized by trees. Since it is not directly dependent on sunlight, monotropa plants can grow in dark environments such as the understory of a dense forest. 

What a lovely example of ecological interdependence, where these three species all interrelate in an extremely complex manner, and effectively work together to benefit all of them. It’s beautiful to think about the vast network of life that takes place in undisturbed areas. Paul Stamets refers to this as “Earth’s Natural Internet”:

The complex situation that allows ghost pipes to grow also makes propagation difficult. Many people refer to this strange plant as Indian pipe fungus, but it is not a fungus at all – it just looks like one. It is actually a flowering plant, and believe it or not, it is a member of the blueberry family, according to some scientists. 

The surprising results of monotropa’s unique survival mechanism have made them a dark horse favorite of many naturalists, from Emily Dickinson to members of several Native American tribes across North America. After getting to know these plants, it’s not hard to see why. 

Monotropa hypopitys flowers.
Monotropa hypopitys (Photo by Nancy Cotner, USFS)

The name “Monotropa” is Greek for “one turn”, as every plant has one large turn-like curve near its apex. “Uniflora” is Latin for “one flowered” since they have one sharply curved stem for each single flower (see photos). Really, it’s all in the name.

America’s eminent poet, Emily Dickinson, called the Indian pipe “the preferred flower of life” and her first book of poetry features this plant on the cover.  In a letter to Mabel Todd, she confided that, “I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering Child, an unearthly beauty, and maturity only enhances the mystery, never decreases it.”

Monotropa as Medicine

The ghost pipe has also been cherished by many Indigenous groups across Turtle Island (or North America) for medicinal qualities. Some Native Americans used the sap to treat eye infections and other ailments. A simple search of the Native American Ethnobotanical database helps us know how else it was used.

The Cherokee used it as an anti-convulsive where they first ground up the roots and then administered it during epilepsies and convulsions. They also crushed it up to rub on bunions or warts. The juice and water was used to wash sore eyes. 

The Cree Indians chewed the flowers to use as a toothache remedy. Mohegan Indians used ghost pipes as an analgesic, taking an infusion of the root or leaves for pain due to colds. Basically it was used to reduce the effects of fevers and pain. 

The Thompson Indians in British Columbia used a poultice of the plant for sores that would not heal. They also noted that an abundance of the plant in the woods indicated many mushrooms that season (which makes sense given the relationship it has with mushrooms). 

The Potawatomi used an infusion of the root as a gynecological aid to treat menstrual cramps. Modern herbalists sometimes use it as a nervine. Nervines are herbs and plants that can potentially help regulate the nervous system, so the goal of nervine tonics is to restore a depleted, stressed or anxious nervous system.

The Cherokee have a legend about the Indian pipe that was passed down orally from generation to generation. The legend tells the story of ancient chiefs who would meet to settle arguments and when they were done would smoke the peace pipe. But then they broke that tradition…

Before selfishness came into the world, the Cherokee happily shared the same hunting and fishing lands with their neighbors. However, everything changed when selfishness arrived. The men began to quarrel with their neighbors. The Cherokee began fighting with a tribe from the east and would not share the hunting area. The chiefs of the two tribes met in council to settle the quarrel. They smoked the tobacco pipe but continued to argue for seven days and seven nights. The Great Spirit watched the people and was displeased by their behavior. They should have smoked the pipe after they made peace. The pipe is sacred and must be treated with respect. He looked down upon the old chiefs, with their heads bowed, and decided to send reminders to the people. So the Great Spirit transformed the chiefs into white-gray flowers that we now call “Indian Pipe.” The plant grows only four to ten inches tall and the small flowers droop towards the ground, like bowed heads. Indian Pipe grows wherever friends and relatives have quarreled. Next the Great Spirit placed a ring of smoke over the mountains. The smoke rests on the mountains to this day and will last until the people of the world learn to live together in peace. That is how the Great Smoky Mountains came to be.

Lloyd Arneach (Eastern Band of Cherokee)

Great Smoky Mountains (Photo from Pixabay)

Description and Life Cycle

The ghost pipe plant arises from a tangled mass of rootlets. Its stems reach heights of from 2 to 12 inches (5 to 30 cm.) and are sheathed with highly reduced leaves of 3/16 to 3/8 inches (5 to 10 mm.) long, which look like small, thin and translucent scales. 

Monotropa uniflora.
Monotropa uniflora flower (Photo by Gary Monroe, USFS)

In Monotropa uniflora, the stems bear a single flower 3/8 to 13/16 inches (10 to 20 mm.) long, with between 3 and 8 translucent petals, 10 to 12 stamens and a single pistil. It flowers from early summer to early autumn, often a few days after rainfall. The fruit, an oval capsule-like structure, enlarges and becomes upright when the seeds mature; after that the stem and capsule start to look desiccated and turn a dark brown or black color. Monotropa uniflora seeds are small, ranging between 3⁄128 and 1⁄32 inch (0.6 to 0.8 mm.) in length.

Monotropa hypopitys (Monotropa meaning “once turned”; hypopitys meaning “under the pine or fir”) is also known as the Dutchman’s pipe, false beech-drops, pinesap, or yellow bird’s-nest. It is a herbaceous perennial plant, native to Northern temperate regions and scarce or rare in many areas. However, monotropa hypopitys is still the most widespread member of the subfamily. 

Monotropa hypopitys.
Monotropa hypopitys (Photo by Nancy Cotner, USFS)

Monotropa hypopithys is generally red or deep pink. It has several flowers on each fleshy stem, while all of its parts are pale yellowish white to reddish tinged. These plants flower from April to December depending on the geographic region (May to October in North America). The plants that flower in summer are yellow, sparsely hairy and may be self-pollinating, while those blooming in autumn are red and densely hairy.

Upon emerging from the ground, the Ghost Pipe’s bell-shaped flowers hang down to protect their nectar from dilution by rain. As bees and other insects visit the nectar wells hidden deep inside the flowers, they access sugars created by a tree and dispersed by a mushroom. With their unique lifestyle, ghost pipes are able to bloom in deep woods where little else can. 

Monotropa uniflora.
Monotropa uniflora flowers (Photo by Hugh and Carol Nourse, USFS)

The blooming begins with a single, odorless, drooping, cup-shaped flower with four or five petals borne at the tip of the stalk. As the flowers mature, they spread to being almost perpendicular to the stem. The fruit emerges as an oval capsule. As that capsule matures, the flower becomes upright (in line with the stem). Once ripened, seed is released through slits that open from the tip to the base of the capsule. The plant turns black as the fruit ripens or when it is picked and dried. The plant’s parts bruise blackish upon handling, and it emits a clear, jelly-like substance when injured. The plant is persistent and perennial after seed dispersal.

Monotropa hypopitys flowers.
Monotropa hypopitys flowers (Photo by Hugh and Carol Nourse, USFS)

Rooted in relationship

These plants were once believed to absorb all nutrients from decayed organic material, but it is now known that they are associated with a fungus, and thus obtain their nutrients directly from the roots of green plants. Indian Pipe, therefore, is more of a parasite, with mycorrhizal fungus as a “bridge” between it and its hosting trees, deriving its energy from trees who use chlorophyll to photosynthesize. 

Not just any fungus will do, however; Monotropa uniflora appears to have evolved this relationship only with species in the mushroom family Russulaceae, namely, Russula or Lactarius mushrooms, which connect with the roots of pines, oaks, beeches, and other trees. These fungal networks supply water and minerals to the trees and receive sugars in return.

Detail of flowers
Each of ten anthers open via two curving slits.

Detail of flowers showing each of 10 anthers open with 2 curving splits
(Photos from Wikipedia)

Ingesting the Ghost Pipe

When sharing about this plant it is important to note concerns about overharvesting and other threatening factors such as loss of habitat through clearcuts and soil disturbance. Ghost Pipe thrives under the forest canopy. As this plant likes to keep its feet wet, the dryer the ecosystem becomes, the harder it is for this plant to survive. So let’s prevent the continued increase in the popularity of and demand for Ghost Pipe, and become a voice for all plants in need of our protection for their continued growth and success.

The flowers of Monotropa uniflora are visited by various bee and fly species, most commonly bumblebees. Bumblebees are an important pollen dispersal agent for the plant, which is often associated with beech trees. The plant contains glycosides and may be toxic to humans, though it has been used as an anxiolytic in herbal medicine since the late 19th century. 

A group of mushrooms growing in the ground

Description automatically generated with low confidence
Monotropa uniflora (Photo from Wikipedia)

Despite possibly being toxic, the entire plant can be cooked, which lends it an asparagus-like flavor. So can you eat this plant? The answer is yes and no. You can usually eat a small quantity of almost any plant without harm. The safe threshold depends on the types of compounds in the plant. Indian pipe has a fair number of compounds that are toxic in large doses. 

Consequently, it is not recommended to eat many of them because of the presence of a number of alkaloids and glycosides that have been proven to have toxicity in fairly low amounts. If you eat it raw it’s almost tasteless, but with a spicy aftertaste which is beneficial as it doesn’t make you want to keep eating them. One is about all you can get down before the spice kicks in.

The reason you wouldn’t want to eat them is due to their glycosides. Scientists discovered grayanotoxins present in a large number of flowers, twigs, and leaves in the Ericaceae family (to which Indian pipes belong). Grayanotoxins mess with the sodium channels of the neurons, which control nerve firing. With these disrupted, you lose the ability to move the muscles in your diaphragm (among other things), potentially causing respiratory depression and bradycardia. At high doses it also causes nausea, salivation, vomiting, weakness, dizziness and loss of balance. 

Interestingly, these grayanotoxins can also be picked up from bees foraging on the flowers and get added to their honey. If people eat the honey that was derived from plants in this group there is the potential to get very sick, such that this honey product is referred to commonly as “mad honey” (known as “deli bal” in Turkey). Even in quantities the size of a teaspoon, this honey can bring on light headedness, or in higher doses hallucinations. While mad honey is somewhat toxic, it’s also something that clearly alters your physical state and hence ingesting these grayanotoxins may have been popular in some circles for the high they produce.

Fruit (NC Extension Gardener)

Herbalism and wildcrafting are becoming increasingly popular, and it is understandable that we all want to connect with the earth and its medicine. However these plants and ecosystems deserve our respect and attention to their current status and existential threats. It is only responsible to educate ourselves on the plants that are rare, threatened, endangered, plants that are impacted by commercialism. Many folks wildcrafting this plant will speak of this plant as being “sacred” and attribute its medicinal uses as being a nervine and an analgesic.

Folks wildcrafting Ghost Pipe defend their gathering of the plant by saying they take only the aerial parts, adding to it catch phrases such as “ethical” or “sustainable” to make their audience think that they are being respectful of the plant. But if this plant is so “sacred” we should LEAVE IT ALONE, because it cannot withstand mass wild harvesting. Those who defend their practices by saying they “take the aerial parts” should keep in mind that removing the flowering parts is removing the fruit bearing seeds that are the next generation of Ghost Pipes. 

Renee Davis wrote an article about Ghost Pipe in which she gives a list of a few alternative plants to use in place of Ghost Pipe. Below is an excerpt from her GHOST PIPE RESPECT blog post:

“I too am enamoured and moved by Ghost pipe. So I leave it in its habitat to continue its life. I sit with it, photograph it, and take in everything it has to offer. There’s more magic there than having it ground up in alcohol on my apothecary shelf.” As Howie Brounstein said, “It’s easier to gather plants than to not gather them.”

Displaying a pink coloration
Pink coloration
A rare red coloration
Rare red coloration
Autumn seed heads, Pennsylvania
Autumn seed heads

(Photos from Wikipedia)

The species in this subfamily are all mycoheterotrophic, relying on fungal hosts for their carbon nutrition. The fungi parasitized by these plants are ectomycorrhizal species of fungi. Hence, these plants act as direct parasites of these fungi, and also indirectly act as an epiparasite of conifers and the larger shared mycorrhizal network. The morphology of the root and the root-level fungal symbiont is distinctive and referred to as monotropoid mycorrhiza. (Although mycorrhizas are generally considered to be mutualistically favorable relationships, it is generally recognized as well that mutualism and parasitism exist on a continuum, and that plant-fungus symbioses with a clearly mycorrhizal root anatomy can also include exploitative relationships.)

Monotropa uniflora.
Monotropa uniflora (Photo by Gary Monroe, USFS)

What an interesting organism! It finds a way to thrive as a second-order parasite on photosynthetic cone-bearing trees, tapping into the web of  mycorrhizal nutrient exchange throughout the forest floor. Wouldn’t it be nice if we humans accepted and embraced our own symbiotic interdependence with all other species on this planet? These “ghost pipes” may be calling us to a more holistic view.

Collectively yours (in peace or pieces)…