Indian Pipe

Ghost plant looks like a fungi, but is actually a flowering, parasitic woodland plant.

Photo: Alex Lewanski

Recently, my son, a Padawan phenologist, discovered an interesting plant in bloom in a woodland situated along the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Dakota County. After studying and conducting some literature review, he declared it to be Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora, Latin for “Once turned single flower”). Not unlike the prized morel mushroom or the various species of native lady slippers, Indian Pipe is not the easiest plant to find. However, now’s the time, so grab the kids, grandma, and the hamster (OK, maybe not the hamster) and head out into the woods to find and marvel at this wondrous little plant. Before venturing forth, though, it might be helpful to know a little more about Monotropa uniflora, a.k.a. Ghost Flower or Corpse Plant.

As you can see in this accompanying photo (taken by my sorcerer’s apprentice), this plant doesn’t look like most other woodland species. Pale, and almost ghostly, Indian Pipe lacks chlorophyll. Thus it requires an unconventional modus operandi for obtaining required life energy. Indian Pipe is completely dependent upon other organisms for nutrients. The three-part relationship works like this: Trees have an existing symbiotic relationship with fungi. As the tree provides food in the form of sugar to the fungi, the fungi enable the tree to access water and nutrients in a more efficient manner. Everything is nice and symbiotic until Indian Pipe comes along. Our dear little friend draws food from the fungus without contributing a gosh darn thing. Queue the dramatic music: Monotropa uniflora is a parasitic heterotroph!

A member of the order Ericales or Heath, Indian Pipe is a relative of blueberries and cranberries. The plant grows to about 10 inches, is waxy white in color and can be found from June through September. It grows in shady woods with rich soils and decaying plant material, and since it is not sunlight-dependent, it can grow in very dense understory. So when you’re out in the woods looking for this funky parasitic plant, be sure to peek in places you wouldn’t otherwise expect to find plant-life.

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— Tom Lewanski, Conservation Director