Indian pipes are among our most unusual native flowering plants, visually and botanically.
Uncommon but not rare, every part of an Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is a waxy translucent white (often pink-tinted) because it has no chlorophyll. Due to the plant’s deathly pale appearance, it also has been dubbed ghost plant, corpse plant and death plant.
Poet Emily Dickinson called this unique plant the “preferred flower of life” and included it in a short poem:
“White as an Indian pipe
Red as a Cardinal flower
Fabulous as a Moon at noon
Indian pipes have a single stem 3 to 8 inches long, bent over at the top and ending with a bell-like flower. They’re still emerging through leaf matter in clusters this time of year in western North Carolina, blooming for about a week before releasing tiny seeds.
The plants then then turn black and wilt away to stay underground as a fibrous root system before coming forth again next year.
Indian pipe is a member of the same botanical family as rhododendron and blueberry, but it looks more like a fungus since it has no chlorophyll for making food.
The plant survives as a parasite in a three-part relationship with certain fungi and certain tree species such as Virginia pine, beech and hemlock.
The Indian pipe’s root system draws nutrients from the fungi that in turn come from tree roots, so these fungi serve as middle men in this transfer of food.
These fungi provide nitrogen, phosphorus and other minerals from the soil to the tree, but the fungi and tree don’t gain anything from Indian pipe plants. At least small bees obtain pollen from Indian pipe flowers.
Since Indian pipe plants need no sunlight, they can live in the dark shade of mature forests and brush. They depend on very specific types of fungi for nutrients from the trees, so it’s very hard to successfully transplant them.
According to a Cherokee legend shared by Mary Chiltosky in “Cherokee Plants,” Indian pipe plants came into the world as a consequence of human selfishness.
The story goes that chiefs of quarreling tribes came together in council to try to settle disputes over hunting and fishing territory. They convened and continued to disagree, while at the same time smoking the peace pipe together, for seven days and nights.
This sacred ritual was supposed to be practiced only after harmony had been restored, and the Great Spirit was angered that the chiefs smoked the peace pipe without settling their disputes first.
Chiltosky said this caused the Great Spirit to turn the offending chiefs into the flowers now called Indian pipes and to make them grow where friends and relatives have quarreled and still need to resolve differences.