On the ground, I noticed a translucent stem with a pinkish tinge, black flecks, and drooping, waxlike petals. It resembled the potato I’d grown in darkness, part of a fourth-grade science experiment. I thought it might be a sucker emerging from a nearby tree root, but took a photo just in case. The lighting conditions were challenging, since it was overcast and the location heavily shaded.
Once home, I scrolled through my shots. Only one was salvageable, so I cropped it and uploaded the image to Plant.id, a site that instantly identifies likely candidates. I soon realized I’d seen a rare site.
Although Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) grows throughout much of North America, it is rarely seen. It prefers old-growth forest (now rare in Florida) with moist, decaying leaf-litter. Since it has no chlorophyll and doesn’t photosynthesize, it often grows in dark spaces.
This plant cannot be found in garden centers. Being a parasite that requires the company of Russula mushrooms which have developed a symbiotic relationship with neighboring trees, it cannot be grown commercially or added easily to gardens.
And, if one picks this flower, it quickly turns black or dissolves in the hand, a trait which may explain one of its monikers, Ice Plant.
This flower was drooping its head, waiting for a bumblebee or skipper butterfly to pollinate it. After pollination, a capsular fruit begins to grow. As the capsule matures, the flower erects, its petals reaching skyward. Then, at the base of the capsule, an opening forms which releases up to 100 seeds to the wind. Each seed has membranous wings, which allow it to drift.
Once a seed lands, it uses an attractant to gain the attention of a Russula mushroom. The mushroom mistakes the seed for a host tree and attaches filaments (mycelium) to it. Only after attachment by a Russula mushroom does the seed germinate.
The Russula also attaches its mycelium to the roots of host trees. The mushroom is beneficial to the tree, making nutrients in the soil available to it. In exchange, the tree sends the mushroom sugars. But the Indian Pipe intercepts some of these incoming sugars for itself, giving nothing in return to either host.
Indian Pipe flowers usually appear in early fall and early summer. They are found in most States, excluding: Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming. Also look for them in the southern half of Canada and, in isolated populations, in Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Monotropa uniflora, which grows singly or in groups, goes by these common names: Indian Pipe, Corpse Plant, Ghost Pipe, Ghost Flower, Ice Plant, Bird’s Nest (which describes its tangle of black roots).
If you discover it on your journey, celebrate with a photograph; but leave it untouched for others to enjoy.
Monotropa uniflora – Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe. U.S. Forest Service.
Dyer Mary H, What is Indian Pipe Plant – Learn About the Indian Pipe Fungus. Gardening Know How.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), Adirondacks Forever Wild.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa Uniflora), The School of Homeopathy.
Indian Pipe, The Friends of the Wildflower Garden, Inc.
Vogelpohl Sid, Know Your Natives – Indian Pipe, Arkansas Native Plant Society, 2013 Oct 22.
Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington, The Pennsylvania State University, 2016 Oct 1.
Monotropa uniflora (Indian pipes), midwestnaturalist.\Russula mushrooms. Hiker’s Notebook.