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Indian Pipe, Ice Plant, or Ghost Flower . . . What is it?

Indian Pipe is one of the more unusual plants to be found in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. It goes by several other names; Corpse Plant, Ice Plant and Ghost Flower to name a few. It was once called “Bird’s Nest” because of its tangled roots. The names refer to the white or translucent color of the flower and the fact that, if picked, the flower turns black. many people mistake Indian Pipe for a type of fungus. It is a plant.

The color, or lack thereof, indicates that this plant can live without cholorophyll. The reason being that it has a mutualistic relationship with the fungi in the soil, which free nutrients for the plant’s use. Tom Volk from wrote an excellent explanation of how this works. The tree involved probably doesn’t even notice the extra carbohydrates it donates to the Indian Pipe. The tree is already providing energy to the mycorrhizal fungi attached to it. It is the fungus that controls how much goes to the Indian Pipe. So what does the tree get out of this relationship? The fungus obtains water and essential minerals, especially phosphorous for the tree. Ah, but the Indian Pipe is truly a parasite. It fools the fungus into thinking that it is

forming a mutually satisfying relationship when it is actually parasitizing the fungus! That sounds like some of the human relationships I’ve heard about!

Many people have reminded me that they have seen flowers that are distinctly pink, not white. The secret is that the white flower turns pink when it has been fertilized. Inside the single, bell-like flower there is a small orange orb surrounded by a translucent pink star-shaped opening, known as anthers. Anthers hold a plants pollen. The pollen falls into the opening (called a stigma) and end up on the ovary. Once the ovary has been fertilized, the entire plant turns black and shrivels. The tiny seeds blow away like dust in the wind.

Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) leaves, stalk and flower are all a ghostly translucent white. They range in height from 4 to 12 inches tall. Each stem bears a single flower, which points down like a pendant on emergence from the ground. As the flower matures it gradually becomes upright before releasing its seeds and withering away. This process is one week from beginning to end and the plant blooms from late June to September. I see mine in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, at the beginning of June.

Poet Emily Dickinson called Ghost Pipe “the preferred flower of life” and her first book of poetry features it on the cover.

It is considered a medicinal plant and was once used for many purposes. It is becoming rare now and we also know that the plant contains several toxic glycosides. It is not recommended that you use it to make a medicine, but historically it was used as a sedative and to treat epilepsy. It was even called “Convulsion Root”.

One of my favorite bloggers, Blind Pig and the Acorn, wrote a lovely article on the Indian Pipe: Indian Pipe Or Ghost Flower Either Way It's Creepy | Blind Pig and The Acorn. In her blog, she links to a Cherokee legend about the Indian Pipe. The story goes that a long time ago, when selfishness first entered the world, people began to quarrel, first with their own families and then their tribal members and then with other tribes. The chiefs of several tribes met to discuss the problem and try to solve it. Instead of waiting to smoke the peace pipe when they had found an answer, the chiefs smoked the peace pipe while continuing to quarrel amongst themselves. They did this for the next seven days and seven nights! The Great Spirit punished them for smoking the pipe before they had actually made peace and turned the chiefs into grey flowers. They even made them grow where relatives and friends had quarreled!

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