The Ghost Flower: Photographs of Monotropa Uniflora
The Indian Pipe Flower
The Indian Pipe Plant
When walking through the woods on a recent hike, we stumbled upon a field of mushrooms. It was absolutely beautiful, with red, orange, and yellow button-topped fungi sitting atop the moss. Among the autumnal hues was a scattering of elegant, white plants that we thought must be mushrooms.
In actuality, these eerie, ghost-like growths are a flowering plant, known as “Indian Pipe,” “Corpse Plant,” or “Ghost Plant.” The plant contains absolutely no chlorophyll, and does not use photosynthesis to produce energy. Since the plant does not require sunlight, it often grows in dense undergrowth where little sunlight reaches the ground.
One of over 3,000 plants that contain no chlorophyll, the Indian Pipe plant must survive by getting nourishment from another source. The Indian Pipe likes to feed on fungi that live amongst the root systems of trees. The fungi “steals” energy from the tree (and provides nitrogen in return), and the Indian Pipe “steals” energy from the fungi – in an indirect way, the tree supports both the beneficial fungi and the parasitic Indian Pipe flower.
The plant is usually completely white, but begins to develop black flecks as it dies. The dead flower turns completely black. Some variants of the Indian Pipe flower are red or pink..
Black-Speckled Indian Pipe Plant
The flower can be found in North America, South America, and in Asia. Each stem bears an isolated flower, and the plant’s leaves are extremely small (5-10mm). The plant grows in the shape of a Shepherd’s Crook, and often grows in small clumps. Approximately 4-10 inches in height, it stands out against the dark forest backdrop.
Indian Pipes Are Flowering Plants
Ghost Flower Locations and Uses
The Ghost Flower is perennial, and will return year after year. The plant remains underground unless it is actively flowering. The plant generally appears above ground in the month of July, and is most likely to be found in forests of Beech and Elm trees. The Indian Pipe in these pictures were found at the Tom Erlandson Overview Park in Frewsburg, New York.
The Indian Pipe flower has purported medicinal properties – the plant is said to be an antispasmodic, a sedative, and useful for reducing fevers. Native Americans drank tea made from the flowers of this plant to alleviate aches and pains and to soothe eye infections. It is not recommended to eat this flower or to make a tea from this plant, however, as the toxicity is unknown. The plant contains glycosides, which may be toxic if consumed in high enough concentrations.
Monotropa Uniflora In the Undergrowth
Other Names for Monotropa Uniflora
- Indian Pipe Plant
- Ghost Plant
- Corpse Flower
- Ice Flower
- Fairy Smoke
- Convulsion Root
The Ghost Flower in Culture
Mary Thacher Higginson wrote a poem about the Ghost Flower, noting its ethereal beauty in the woods.
Other people thought the Ghost Flower was less than angelic – Nellie Blanchan de Graff (using the penname Neltje Blanchan) noted the flowers tendency to melt away when it is held, and the quickness with which the flower turns black once picked. Her opinion of the flower was that it turned quickly black with “shame” once it had been picked.
The Indian Pipe flower does not fare well once picked. It will quickly turn black and die; unlike photosynthesizing plants which can continue to make energy from sunlight when placed in a vase, the Indian Pipe has no source of “food” once plucked from the ground. This flower is best observed in the deep woods where it is found.
Mary Higginson's Ghost Flower Poem
Monotropa Uniflora Phylogeny
Plants with Seeds
Plants with Flowers
Dicotyledons (2 seed leaves)
Subclass containing 77 families
The same order as heathers and azaleas
Indian Pipe Family
Monotropa Uniflora L.