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Indian Pipe: Not for Smoking

Another parasitic plant! Add this one, Monotropa uniflora (commonly called any of these variously wonderful names: Indian pipe, ghost plant, or corpse plant) to the growing list with Orobanche cooperi and Sarcodes sanguinea. Like its relative, S. sanguinea, it is also part of the Ericaceae (Heath) family.

this is what's going on in there.

I met this weirdo, non-photosynthetic, all-white plant in the spruce-covered woods of Nova Scotia. After spazzing out, alerting the entire wedding party to the Indian pipe’s phantasmagorical presence, there were many questions, namely, “That’s a plant, not a fungus?” The confusion was understandable, especially since there were tons of golden-hued chanterelles and other unknown mushroom species popping out of the duff. In the recent S. sanguinea post, we went over how these “myco-heterotrophic” plants are parasitic, but it’s worth doing again – the concept of this triple symbiosis is so foreign it can be hard to get a handle on. This species is a prime and juicy example of the interwoven foundations of ecology within which we’re all constantly operating. What’s the story?

Obviously, Indian pipe is lacking green leaves. As such, it’s also missing the plant pigment called chlorophyll, which is crucial because chlorophyll is what captures the sunlight that drives photosynthesis, the process upon which all food webs on Earth are fundamentally based. But what Indian pipe lacks in color and chemistry it makes up for in networking. Instead of making sugars from solar energy like “normal” plants, Indian pipe and other parasitic species siphon the carbs from a nearby tree, like so:

1.)   The neighboring tree photosynthesizes;

what a user: Indian pipe with its inseparable friend, the conifer

2.)   the sugars are transported from the tree’s leaves to the roots, where fungus is hanging out in a symbiotic relationship with the tree, offering the roots more surface area to absorb water and nutrients in exchange for taking advantage of the sugars provided by the photosynthesizing tree;

3.)   the neighboring Indian pipe taps into the same fungus and free-loads some of those sugars for itself, as well as some of the nutrients it requires;

4.)   voila! Myco-heterotrophy.

In Nova Scotia, this specific tri-association of species is known as the “conifer-boletus-monotropa” relationship, with boletus referring to the fungal family Boletaceae (I didn’t know the names of any of the species of mushrooms in this forest, save for the Chanterelles, which aren’t a bolete — doh!). On the eastern side of North America, the conifer tends to be a pine or a spruce. Because of this dependency, Indian pipe is virtually impossible to transplant.

Globally, Monotropa uniflora has a wide range, native throughout much of the temperate northern hemisphere, from Asia through North America and even down into northern South America. Within this broad area, though, it is generally pretty scarce or rare in occurrence, with its more common presence in eastern North America (like Nova Scotia, where I was lucky enough to spot it) being the relative exception. In California, it’s generally found along the north coast and the Klamath Mountains, in the mixed evergreen and redwood forests of Humboldt and Del Norte counties in June through September. Because it’s not dependent on the sun for its food like most plants are, Indian pipe can grow just fine in the dark understory beneath the thick canopy. And though it’s not listed as an endangered species by the feds or the state and is considered globally secure, the California Native Plant Society lists it as “imperiled” and “vulnerable.” Why? Threats include foot traffic, recreation, road maintenance, and logging.

3-8 petals, blending in almost indistinguishably with the small scale-leaves

Since Indian pipe is rare in most places, it shouldn’t be harvested these days. But, traditionally, native Americans did use it — not as a real p-i-p-e but rather to remedy several and varied ailments, from curing warts and soothing inflamed eyes, to treating colds, calming spasms and epilepsy, and acting as mild nervous sedative. According to Northern Bushcraft, the raw plant is edible, though it contains glycosides and may be poisonous if eaten in large quantities.

Props to this strange little species. Keep your eyes out — ‘tis the season for Indian pipe, the ghost plant of the deep, dark woods.

don't smoke it.

And because I’ve been neglecting music coverage only since there is so much going on in the botanical realm right now, here’s some Wolves in the Throne Room, “Queen of the Borrowed Light” (think they were honoring Indian Pipe, the little plant that “borrows” sugar, or altered sunlight, when they wrote this?):


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