Bedford Audubon Society

A Northern Westchester & Eastern Putnam Counties, New York
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Celebrating 98 Years of Conservation 1913-2011

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Indian Pipe
Summer Ghost of the Forest
By Carol Gracie
Page 1

Indian Pipe by Carol Gracie







Indian pipe in flower

While enjoying a summer walk in the cool of the forest, your eye might be drawn to something white on the ground, especially in the deep shade of pines, oaks, beeches, or hemlocks. A quick glance could lead you to believe that you’ve found a strange fungus, but a closer look will show that it is a true flower, albeit an unusual one. This white apparition has appropriately been called ghost flower, corpse plant, or more commonly, Indian pipe. Indian pipe is descriptive of the shape of the plant with its flower curved downward so that it faces the ground. The scientific name, Monotropa uniflora, is also appropriate meaning “once-turned, single flower.” Each stalk bears just a solitary flower that turns upward after pollination and remains that way as the fruit develops. It has also been known as bird’s nest for the appearance of its mass of short, blunt roots, and ghost flower and corpse plant, referring to the white, waxy appearance of the plant. Indian pipe is a plant that lacks the green pigment called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is necessary for photosynthesis, the process whereby plants manufacture their own food (photosynthate) in the presence of sunlight. Lacking chlorophyll, Indian pipe is unable to produce its own food and therefore has no need for true leaves which are replaced by small scales along the stem. It is able to inhabit the darkest areas of the forest where sunlight is in short supply. Plants may grow as a single stem or in clumps of up to 20 stems, but they are not generally found in large numbers.

Indian Pipe by Carol Gracie
Flower turning upward
Indian Pipe by Carole Gracie
Indian pipe fruits in fall

Indian pipe is not parasitic upon nearby trees as are some other achlorophyllous plants (e.g., beechdrops), but rather fulfills its nutritional needs through the services of an intermediary, a mycorrhizal fungus. The fungus forms a connection with both Indian pipe and with nearby trees and transfers some of the photosynthate it derives from the tree roots to the Indian pipe. Experiments using radioactive isotopes of carbon and phosphorus injected into trees have shown that the marked carbon and phosphorus are taken up by the Indian pipe, thus documenting that it is, indeed, transferred by the fungus. Before this process was well understood, non-green plants which were known not to have a direct connection to other plants (as with Indian pipe) were thought to obtain their nutrients from non-living organic debris on the forest floor. They were termed saprophytes, meaning plants that get their nourishment from decaying organic matter. The term saprophyte is now obsolete, and plants such as Indian pipe and others that obtain nutrients in the same manner are called mycoheterotrophs or epiparasites. They appear to be parasitic on the fungi as no benefit to the fungus from its association with the Indian pipe has been discerned.

The plants are small, growing to 4-10" tall with flowers that are about ¾" long. They may be found in flower anytime from June to September. The entire plant is white with the occasional blush of pink. The stems are fragile, breaking easily and turning black when damaged. A gel-like sap is said to have been used medicinally by Native Americans for treating eye problems. Once pollinated, the flowers turn upright and the plants turn brown. Little is known about the pollination of Indian pipe, but bees and skipper butterflies have been observed to visit them. The ovary develops into a woody capsule with five slits through which the tiny seeds are shaken out. The seeds germinate when the proper fungus is available in the soil. Like the minute seeds of orchids, they contain only a trace of endosperm and must rely on the fungus to obtain the nutrients necessary for growth. The dried plants can be seen in the forest even into the next spring.

Indian Pipe by Carol Gracie
Indian pipe fruits showing slits
Indian Pipe by Carole Gracie
Indian pipe in flower

More on Indian Pipe

See Carol Gracie's Scenes of the Seasons - Summer

Photos Courtesy of and Copyright © by Carol Gracie

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