Into the Haunted Forest: Ghost Pipe

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Monday, October 26th, 2020

Written by Clary Greacen Montagne

Cluster of Monotropa uniflora. Photo by Courtney Celley, USFWS.

Wandering through a dark and shady forest, perhaps foraging for mushrooms, you might happen upon a small cluster of ghostly pale flowers growing through the leaf litter. This curious and elusive plant is the Monotropa uniflora, also known as Ghost Pipe, Indian Pipe, or Corpse Plant. Formerly considered to be part of the Heath family (Ericaceae), recent evidence suggests they are worthy of their own classification, Monotropaceae. The single, bell-shaped flowers of Ghost Pipe grow on curved stems, Monotropa meaning “one turn.”  Each stem and flower resemble a small upside down pipe, hence the name “Ghost Pipe.” These plants can be found throughout most of the U.S., growing in the rich humus of mature forests at low to moderate elevations, and can also be found in some parts of Asia. While widespread in range, they are not commonly found. Ghost Pipe requires a very specific growing process and because of this, is practically impossible to cultivate or propagate. 

This mycotrophic wildflower grows at the base of trees where roots meet the mycelium network, getting all their nutrition through a symbiotic relationship with fungi. Ghost Pipe owes its waxy white appearance to a lack of chlorophyll, the green pigment that allows most plants to photosynthesize. Instead of photosynthesis, Ghost Pipe gets its necessary nutrients through a mycorrhizal association with a fungus. In this unique relationship, a fungus invades the roots of the plant, allowing the plant to get its energy from the photosynthesis of the fungus’ host tree. With no light dependency, Ghost Pipe is able to thrive in the dark, spooky environment of the forest floor.

Photo by Helen Lowe Metzman.

Spending most of their life underground, these plants flower in the small window between June and September, when they poke up through the leaf litter alone or in small stands. Ghost Pipe grows between four and eight inches tall, and is pale white in color with small black or pink specks, and can also have brightly colored pink stems. The plants have small, scale-like leaves and five parted white flowers, with a single flower per stem. Ghost Pipe is pollinated by bees, who hang on to its flower upside down. Upon first flowering and emerging from the ground, the flower hangs downward, but as the fruit capsule matures, the flower points upwards in line with the stem. Once the fruit has ripened, seeds are released through small slits and dispersed by wind. The Ghost Pipe will flower for about a week, before shriveling and turning black, hence its alternate name, “Corpse Plant.”

Ghost Pipe has been used by indigenous peoples of North America as a medicinal plant, primarily for its pain-relieving properties. A Cherokee legend about Ghost Pipe tells of a time long ago, when selfishness first entered the world, and people began quarreling. First, they quarreled with their own families and tribal members, and then with other tribes. The chiefs of several tribes met together to try to solve the disputes, and smoked a peace pipe together, while continuing to quarrel with each other for 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.

Ghost Pipe is used today in Western Herbal Medicine as a nervine, or plant beneficial to the nervous system, and may provide benefits for epilepsy, psychological conditions, and physical pain. Unfortunately, the popularity of this plant in Western Herbal Medicine has caused it to be overharvested. Ghost Pipe is extremely delicate, so much so that when handled, it wilts very quickly and turns black. It’s best to admire this ghostly plant without attempting to handle or harvest it.