The Amazing Lives of Indian Pipes

On recent walks in the woods, I have noticed that the Indian Pipes are out. 

     You know, those otherworldy-looking, colorless candy canes that push right up through the dried leaves on the forest floor.  The little clusters of waxy-looking, almost translucent white beings fascinate me.  I see them only in the forest, and only here and there. 

     Just what are they?  A fungus?  A plant? They certainly don’t resemble mushrooms.  But, with not a trace of green, they don’t look like plants either.  

     So I decided to do a little research.  The Indian Pipe, also called Ghost Flower  or Corpse Plant, is not a fungus.  It is a plant.  Complete with a stem and leaves (little scales toward the top of the stem), the Indian Pipe is topped by a solitary, nodding, bell-shaped flower.  And solid white.  Like other flowers, the flower of the Indian Pipe contains seeds and is pollinated. 

     But unlike almost all plants that get their energy from sunlight, the Indian Pipe is a saprophyte.  It gets its nourishment from dead and decaying organic matter.  In this sense, the Indian Pipe is like a fungus.   

     Of course the truth is more complicated than simply that the Indian Pipe gets its nourishment from dead and decaying organic matter.  The Indian Pipe is actually nourished by a micorrhizal fungus, an underground intermediary that is attached both to the Indian Pipe and to the roots of a tree.  The fungus is a conduit, sending nourishment it receives from the tree on to the  Indian Pipe!

     The Indian Pipe, which grows throughout eastern forests, has been viewed as a healing plant.  Indians used it to treat colds and fevers.  Early settlers used it to treat fainting spells and nervous conditions.

     And there is a Cherokee legend about the Indian Pipe:  Long ago, when selfishness first entered the world, people began quarreling–first with their own families and tribal members, and then with other tribes.  The chiefs of the several tribes met together to try to solve the problem of quarreling.  They smoked a peace pipe together, while continuing to quarrel among themselves for the next seven days and seven nights.  In punishment for smoking the peace pipe before actually making peace, the Great Spirit turned the chiefs into grey flowers and made them grow where relatives and friends had quarreled.

     The Indian Pipe has also inspired poetry.  Below are a couple of verses about this singular plant.–April Moore

Pale, mournful flower, that hidest in shade
Mild dewy damps and murky glade,
With moss and mould,
Why dost thou hand thy ghastly head,
So sad and cold?
- Catharine Esther Beecher,
To the Monotropa, or Ghost Flower

Where the long, slant rays are beaming,
Where the shadows cool lie dreaming,
Pale the Indian pipes are gleaming–
Laugh, O murmuring Spring!
- Sarah Foster Davis, Summer Song

10 Responses to “The Amazing Lives of Indian Pipes”

  1. Gail Says:

    This was an education to me. I’ve never seen these much less heard of them. The poetry was truly inspired and framed them well. What a beautiful delicate little plant. I can’t wait till I see them somewhere. Thank you for this gift.

  2. Judy Says:

    This was really special for me. I have not seen these plants since my time at summer camp in Connecticut, now 45 years ago. I remember them well, along with Lady Slippers and Jack-in-the Pulpit, two other exotic plants from that place and time. Two very unusual plants that I have seen here in New Mexico, also without green, are Pine Drops and Corn Maiden Flower. Thank you for this, for the splendid, other-worldly photo, and the almost-mysterious poetry.

  3. Tanya Says:

    Thank you, April. I’ve seen Indian pipes for the first time since moving to the Northern Neck of VA and all I knew about them was that they did not manufacture chlorophyll. They’re eerie, fascinating little plants and I’m happy to know more about them.

  4. Kia Says:

    I loved the article! How timely since we were just admirig them this weekend!

  5. April Says:

    As I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about Indian Pipes and about readers’ comments, I am now wondering some more. Does the underground fungus that acts as an intermediary between the Indian Pipes and the tree ‘get’ anything out of being the conduit? Do the Pipes and the fungus have a symbiotic relationship, or are the Pipes a complete parasite?

    And I have never heard of the southwestern chlorophyll-free plants the Pine Drops and Corn Maiden Flower. I may just have to look them up too!

  6. Joan Brundage Says:

    I loved the article. As a child growing up in New Jersey next to a forest, I always found these in clusters in the Spring and it was always magical to see them!

  7. De Herman Says:

    I love seeing Indian Pipes in the Eastern woods in Maryland and West Virginia. Thank you, April, for enlightening me with science, lore, and poetry about these fascinating little plants.

  8. Diane Says:

    You have me thinking about the interconnectedness. The underground fungus derives its nourishment from the tree, and it makes sense that the fungus then gives what it has to offer to another form of life. The Indian pipes is then available to give to heal other life, and on and on. So I guess the fungus” gets” something by doing its part in the life chain. I’m glad to have seen these plants and to value other life forms just that much more.

  9. Alana Remley Says:

    Thanks for the information. I remember these as a child growing up and going to camp in Pennsylvania. I recently saw them again in a yard in Connecticut. Now I know what they are.

  10. Barbara Turpin Says:

    I just saw some of these on one of my walks and didn’t know what they were. Thank you for the illumination! :-)

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