Indian Pipe

Photo by Jim Block
Indian Pipe

An oddity in the plant world is the roughly one percent of plant species that do not manufacture their own carbohydrates via photosynthesis. Instead, these plants are parasites, stealing carbohydrates from other plants. Several of these unusual plants are found in the shade of the northern woodlands, and the most common and easily recognized is Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora).

The name “Indian pipe” comes from the upside-down, pipe-like shape of the plant stem and its single, downturned, tube-shaped flower. The entire plant is a ghostly, waxy white or sometimes pinkish in color. This eerie coloration has given rise to another common name: corpse plant. 

The flower stems of Indian pipe push through the duff of the forest floor in mid- to late summer, either singly or in small clusters. The virtually smooth stems, with tiny, vestigial leaves, grow to a height of 3 to 10 inches. The white pipes are conspicuous in the dense forest shade and grow where the light is too dim for most other plants to survive. Not much is known about the pollination of Indian pipe’s flowers, but the plant does produce copious, dust-like seeds. Upon fertilization, the downward-pointing flower turns upward, which is the reason behind the plant’s genus name of Monotropa, meaning “one turn.” After the seeds mature, the entire plant turns black but remains upright for up to several weeks.

Since Indian pipe does not photosynthesize, it does not need chlorophyll and so has no green coloration. It does not need leaves to gather sunlight, nor does it even need sunlight. What it does need, however, is to have its roots connected with an underground, mycorrhizal fungus that, in turn, is connected to the roots of a living tree. Symbioses between mycorrhizal fungi and photosynthesizing plants, like trees, are common. The tree’s roots gather water and nutrients from the soil by way of the fungus, and the fungus takes carbohydrates that the tree has produced with energy from the sun. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. Indian pipe is an interloper in this symbiosis – stealing the tree’s carbohydrates from the fungus and giving nothing in return. Many scientists therefore consider Indian pipe to be a parasite of the fungus. 

Indian pipe is a member of the heath (Ericaceae) family, along with mountain laurel, blueberry, and trailing arbutus. Scientists believe that Indian pipe descended from a photosynthesizing heath family plant of the forest understory. This ancestor plant probably shared the services of a mycorrhizal fungus with a tree, possibly a conifer. The ancestor plant was very efficient at tapping into the resources of the mycorrhizal fungus and began to confiscate the carbohydrates that the fungus had obtained from its conifer host.  The ancestor plant became so efficient at stealing carbohydrates from the fungus that it no longer needed to photosynthesize. Over time, it lost its green coloration and its leaves and evolved into today’s Indian pipe.

Although Indian pipe produces many seeds, few seeds will germinate and grow on to become mature plants. This is because the dust-like seeds need very exacting conditions for germination and growth, including contact with the appropriate mycorrhizal fungus. Because Indian pipe is slow to establish from seed and thrives in deep shade, it is most often seen in older forests, especially those with rich soils.

 
Discussion
  1. Dan Seamans → in Susquehanna PA
    Jul 31, 2009

    I have read a lot of articles on this plant, but no one seems to know that this plant is known as a ghost plant because it glows in the dark.

  2. Scattergood-Moore → in Newtonville, Massachusetts
    Aug 04, 2009

    I live in an artist condo in Newtonville, MA (a town west of Boston).
    We have a number of groups of Indian Pipes under dense undergrowth.
    This is the fist year I have seen them - any ideas why after 25+ years here they appeared now?

  3. Sandra → in Maine
    Aug 10, 2009

    I’ve also just discovered some today in our woods in Farmington, Maine.  We’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve never seen them before! Could all the rain have something to do with their appearance?  They are fascinating plants!

  4. Barbara Bellehumeur, State College PA → in Grays Woods
    Aug 22, 2009

    This is the first season for us to watch the fascinating Indian Pipes.

    I found one and each weekend since a few more have appeared. This location is an old well established forest with interesting geo formations throughout. The recent rains have given life to many mushroom, toadstool, fungus and algae, all new to us…a plethora of learning and great beauty for me.

    At the top of the NE ridge of the sinkhole, there is a lot of activity right now.  The area has grown up with many varieties of hardwoods.

    My task is to keep neighbors from dumping grass clippings and tree trimmings onto the above mentioned beauties. The owner, my friend cannot see the wonder in all I described, sadly.

    Do Indian Pipes glow in the dark, really???

    Barbara Bellehumeur

  5. Steve Keck → in Ottumwa, Iowa
    Sep 05, 2009

    I live in SE Iowa, and am an avid hunter and outdoorsman; this is the first time I have ever seen this plant, AMAZING.  Smell them, they have an herbal smell.  As soon as it gets dark I will see if they glow. I was hoping they were edible.  Lots of cool mushrooms this year too.  Loving life.

  6. Arv → in Blue Island, Illinois
    Sep 21, 2009

    I finally identified this plant in our restored prairie and wetland.  The unusual thing is that it is in a heavily disturbed area that was completely replanted with prairie plants and was upland and fairly dry.  It had no trees associated with it, but perhaps there was dead wood that it was growing on.  It was June when I saw it, and then it was lost as the larger plants grew around it.

  7. Anthony Walls → in Cincinnati Ohio
    Oct 06, 2009

    I was in the Allegheny National Forest, North West Pennsylvania back in the mid 80’s. We found this plant in abundance in the forest. We used it to mark trails at night because of it slight glowing effect.

  8. Helen Downing → in NH
    Oct 27, 2009

    Thanks for mentioning that Indian Pipes turn black after ripening. That solved a mystery for me: I had found blackened pipe shapes under a beech tree and wondered if it was another type of non-choropytic plant or just a dried up mushroom like Dead Man’s Fingers.

  9. Ken McPherson → in Jay, FL
    Oct 28, 2009

    This is also my first time seeing Indian Pipe.  In my case I found it in what seems to be an unusual place.  It is located in a partially shaded area beside pine trees that are less than 15 years old.  The soil in this area is very poor.  After testing our soil the state agricultural agent said that the only thing we didn’t need was dirt.  Everything I’ve read about Indian Pipe says that it should only grow in deep shade with very rich soil.  Comments?

  10. Laurie Gilson → in Gainesville, FL
    Sep 27, 2011

    I’m doing a book on the state flowers of America, and I like to add in interesting plants/animals where I can - does anyone know which states specifically these plants grow in?  At the moment, I’m working on New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Illinois - so if anyone knows for sure that they grow there, it would help me.  Thanks, Laurie

  11. Meghan → in Corinth, VT
    Sep 28, 2011

    Hi Laurie.

    I suggest you check out the USDA’s plant database online. They have distribution maps that will surely help you with your research. http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=MOUN3

  12. Amy → in New York
    Aug 17, 2014

    Thank you for helping solve this mystery for me.  I found this plant just yesterday growing near a log in upstate NY in a semi mature forest.  I had no idea what it was but am thrilled to have this information. 

  13. Allan Moniez → in United States
    Jul 20, 2015

    I found a small clump growing in South Orange Reservation, NJ. This is a very cool little plant; I would love to find a way to cultivate them. I am doing a lot of research. I don’t want to take the one clump I found, if I could find a way to grow them from seeds. When the plant dies off I think maybe they may grow from the flowers?

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