Know Your Natives- Indian Pipe

Indian Pipe (aka Ghost Plant and Corpse Plant) (Monotropa uniflora) is a herbaceous plant that occurs across most of North America and even in Asia.  Although widespread, it is generally scarce or rare in occurrence.  It belongs to its own family, Monotropaceae.  The scientific name translates to “once-turned single flower”.

Indian Pipe only emerges above ground when flowering, sending up several to as many as 20 or more waxy white unbranched stalks (see photo below).

Indian Pipe - Monotropa unifloraThe fragile stalks terminate in drooping bell-shaped flowers, usually white, but sometimes pink or even red.  Vestigial leaves called bracts cover the stem like scales. Flowers have either four or five petals, one central pistil and from 10 to 12 stamens.  Flower size ranges from 1/2 to 1 inch in length, and the height of the plant varies from 3 to 9 inches. As the fruit capsules ripen, flowers point straight up for more effective seed dispersal (see photo below), and the entire above-ground part of the plant darkens to a deep brown.

Indian Pipe - Monotropa uniflora  Dried plants can be seen in the forest even into the next spring (see photo below).

Indian Pipe - Monotropa unifloraWithout any chlorophyll and no need for sunlight, plants occur in the cool and moist environment of a dense forest wherein a rich soil has developed from decaying plant material.  (Such soil being ideal for fungus.)  Experiments with radioactive carbon and phosphorus injected into trees have proven that Indian Pipe takes food indirectly from living trees using a fungus, such as Russula (a gilled mushroom), as an intermediary.  The fungus, in a symbiotic relationship with a wide variety of trees, including oak, beech and pine, collects food from tree roots in exchange for mineral nutrients. The Indian Pipe’s roots chemically mimic the tree’s root system causing the root-like threads of the fungus’s mycelia to attach to the Indian Pipe.  The Indian Pipe takes a portion of the fungus’s food for itself.  Indian Pipe does not benefit fungus or tree.  Plants such a Indian Pipe are called epiparasites.

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 slits through which the tiny seeds pass.  Seeds are like powder and disperse by wind.  Germination occurs only when the seed has been attached by the fungal mycelia.

Article and photos by Sid Vogelpohl

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