Indian pipe plants on the forest floor can be an indicator of a healthy soil ecosystem. Photo credit:

Many people who come upon Indian pipe in the forest guess that it is a fungus because of its pale white coloration.   In spite of its appearance, it is a flowering plant, closely related to Rhododendron, blueberry and other members of the Ericaceae family.   Monotropa uniflora is also known by the common names Ghost Plant and Corpse Plant.  It is found in the forest understory associated with a rich soil high in organic matter and surface litter.   Its height ranges from four to ten inches and it can be found growing singly or in clusters.  The bell-shaped flowers are present from June through September and are pollinated by small bumblebees that feed on the nectar.

Because the Indian pipe plant does not have chlorophyll, which gives green plants their coloration, it cannot produce its own food via photosynthesis. It is one of over 3000 parasitic plants, those that must obtain their food from other living organisms.  Some of these, including the mistletoes, dodder and beech drops, directly parasitize other plants.  The Indian pipe plant is mycoheterotrophic, parasitizing certain fungi that live in the soil.  Its roots tap into the thread-like growth of the fungus and the plant receives nutrients via this connection.  The fungi in this relationship are mycorrhizal fungi, having a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with a tree or other plant.  The fungus grows in the roots of the tree and in the soil and obtains nutrients in the form of sucrose from the tree.  The tree benefits by receiving water and nutrients taken up by the fungus, essentially functioning like an expansion of the root system.   So, the nutrients that the Indian pipe plant are getting from the fungus came originally from a photosynthetic plant and the Indian Pipe could be considered an indirect parasite of the plant.

Monotropa uniflora occurs commonly in the eastern United States and is also native to temperate regions of Asia and northern South America.  In some parts of its range it is rare or uncommon.  It is an herbaceous perennial.  In addition to a pure white color, it is sometimes found with black flecks or a pale pink coloration.  A rare type has a deep red color.  As they age, the Indian pipes turn black.

The fungi commonly associated with the Indian pipe plant include those in the genera Russula and Lactarius.  Trees that have mycorrhizal relationships with these fungi include American beech and pines.  Mushrooms are produced by both groups of fungi.  The caps of the Russula mushrooms can be brightly colored.

The Cherokee people have a story explaining the origin of this little plant.   According to the story, there was a time long ago when different people lived in peace, shared hunting and fishing grounds and never argued.  When men became greedy and learned to quarrel, a bitter dispute arose between the Cherokee and a neighboring tribe.  The two chiefs met in solemn council and smoked the peace pipe to try and resolve the issue.  They smoked but continued to quarrel for several days. The Great Spirit was displeased that the Indians were quarreling while smoking the peace pipe.  He saw how gray and weary the old men looked and said “I shall have to do something to you men that will show you that People should live together in peace, and that when Indians smoke the pipe, it must be done in peace.”  He turned them into silvery gray flowers with their heads bent over.  If you find Indian pipes in the woods and turn it upside down, it resembles an Indian pipe, but where they are found clustered together in the woods, they have the appearance of little gray people meeting together.