Many of the common names for this unusual plant are shiver-inducing: Ghost Plant, Corpse Plant, Death Plant, Convulsion Root. Others are just intriguing: Indian Pipe (or Indian Pipestem), Fairy Smoke, and Eyebright. The plant itself is unusual, emerging like ghostly white fingers from the leaf litter beneath certain birch and evergreen tree species.
I had never heard of Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, until my father-in-law sent me a picture, thrilled that they had found a few specimens near their lakeside cottage for the first time in years. Apparently they used to find a few of these intriguing plants each summer, but they had all but disappeared from the property. Its normal range is from Maine southward to the Carolinas and westward to Missouri, but that seems to be shrinking with the old-growth hardwood forests.
At first glance, I thought the fingerlike stems he'd photographed were some unusual fungus. In actuality, they are a plant with no green parts, entirely lacking chlorophyll necessary for making their own food. The leafless stem, which is covered with bracts that look somewhat like the scales on a lily bulb, extends 3-10 inches above the ground, and curves at the top, with one single, downward-facing flower. This is reflected in its botanical name, which literally means single (mono-) turn (-tropa), single (uni-) flower (-flora).
The stems themselves are brittle and scaly-looking, and are actually cool to the touch, adding the common name Ice Plant to the other descriptive names by which it is known. They are very tender and bruise easily, and "melt" or degenerate into mush when handled roughly or picked. While some varieties have tints of pink or red, in addition to the almost translucent white, most turn brown or blackish as they age, and decompose into a mass of gooey, black sludge.
Plants with no chlorophyll, called heterotrophs, are fairly rare. The lack of need for sunshine allows them to grow in heavy undergrowth and thick, dark wooded areas. With no manner of producing their own food, they are dependent on a host plant to produce the nutrients they need. In this case, the Ghost Plant acts as the parasitic third wheel in an otherwise mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between a fungus and tree roots, called mycorrhiza. Initially, the tree provides sugars to the fungus, and the fungus provides minerals, especially nitrogen and phosporus, from the soil to the tree. In this case, the Ghost Plant insinuates itself in a nestlike mass of roots into the threadlike strands of fungus growing on the tree roots, benefiting both from the sugars and starches produced by the tree, and from the minerals provided by the fungus. It forces the fungus to procure nutrition both for itself and for the Ghost Plant, and does not benefit the host plant or fungus in return.
Native Americans, however, did find the plant beneficial. They used the juices of the delicate stems to treat eye complaints, perhaps the basis of the common name Eyebright. Early European settlers used the powdered root as a general sedative, and to treat convulsions and nervous complaints, lending the names Fit Root and Convulsion root. It also seems that the powdered root was used to cure bunions and warts. I find the stories behind the many common names as interesting as the plant itself! The legend that follows this interesting plant tells of Cherokee chiefs coming together to calm bickering tribes. They smoked a peace pipe, but instead of making peace, they quarreled and fussed among themselves, so the Great Spirit turned them into the gray flowers shaped like the pipe they smoked and they had to grow in the places where the tribes quarreled.
Indian Pipe requires very specific types of fungi in the Russulaceae and Lactarius families, which are associated only with American beech and a few trees in the pine family. Because of this very specific dependence, it is extremely difficult to transplant or grow if removed from the location where it was found. Despite the fact that the pollinated plant releases thousands of nearly microscopic seeds, propogation is incredibly difficult, and depends entirely on the seeds coming into contact with the threadlike hyphae of its specific host fungus. If you are fortunate enough to come across a specimen of this eerie plant, most often after a summer rain, I strongly recommend you pull out your camera, not your trowel, and follow the wisdom of this saying:
Take nothing but pictures,
Leave nothing but footprints,
Kill nothing but time.
So many of our wild treasures are threatened and endangered and chances of survival are slim to non-existent on these wild-collected plants. Please leave them where you find them. The only time you should collect something from the wild is when it is endangered by construction, and only then, once you have permission from the land owner. Please be thoughtful and responsible in the woods and fields.
Images courtesy of PlantFiles