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The Ghost Flower: Photographs of Monotropa Uniflora

Updated on May 7, 2012

The Indian Pipe Flower

Indian Pipe Flower, captured in the woods of Western New York with a Canon 30D SLR camera.
Indian Pipe Flower, captured in the woods of Western New York with a Canon 30D SLR camera. | Source

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

Flecks of black can be seen on this Ghost Flower. The flower will turn entirely black with a withered appearance when it dies.
Flecks of black can be seen on this Ghost Flower. The flower will turn entirely black with a withered appearance when it dies. | Source

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

A close-up shot of the flowering portion of the Ghost Plant.
A close-up shot of the flowering portion of the Ghost Plant. | Source

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

Since the Indian Pipe plant contains no chlorophyll, it does not require sunlight to grow.
Since the Indian Pipe plant contains no chlorophyll, it does not require sunlight to grow. | Source

Other Names for Monotropa Uniflora

  • Indian Pipe Plant
  • Ghost Plant
  • Corpse Flower
  • Ice Flower
  • Fairy Smoke
  • Convulsion Root
  • Eyebright


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

"Ghost Flowers," by Mary Thacher Higginson - the second wife of famed Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was an abolitionist and served as a colonel for  the Civil War's African American 1st South Carolina Volunteers.
"Ghost Flowers," by Mary Thacher Higginson - the second wife of famed Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was an abolitionist and served as a colonel for the Civil War's African American 1st South Carolina Volunteers. | Source

Monotropa Uniflora Phylogeny

Phylogenic Category
Classification
Description
Kingdom
Plantae
Plants
Subkingdom
Tracheobionta
Vascular Plants
Superdivision
Spermatophyta
Plants with Seeds
Division
Magnoliophyta
Plants with Flowers
Class
Magnolipsida
Dicotyledons (2 seed leaves)
Subclass
Dilleniidae
Subclass containing 77 families
Order
Ericales
The same order as heathers and azaleas
Family
Monotropaceae
Indian Pipe Family
Genus
Monotropa L.
Indianpipe
Species
Monotropa Uniflora L.
Indianpipe

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    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      3 years ago from Western New York

      I do love these flowers! They aren't very common in our general area, but they grow in the woods on this particular trail every year. They are so fascinating. Parasitic plants are really interesting, and I love the way this one has no chlorophyll, but manages to siphon energy from its host plant.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      3 years ago from Essex, UK

      Intriguing plant Leah, and I can well understand why you thought at first they might be a mushroom. And of course they behave a little like mushrooms - interesting that they 'feed' off fungi in the same way as fungi feed off the trees (the biter bit?)

      Never heard of the ghost flower before so thanks for the information on a curious plant. Voted up in several categories. Alun

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      They do look (and feel) like mushrooms, D Shannahan! I had to look them up when we first encountered them, as they were very unusual looking. The presence of a flower should have tipped me off to the fact that these were not fungi, but the lack of chlorophyll and the rubbery/melting feel of the flower makes the plant look like a strange form of mushroom!

    • D Shannahan profile image

      D Shannahan 

      6 years ago from Everywhere Man!

      cool! came across some of these on a hike - thought they were mushrooms. really cool plant though

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Stephanie, we wandered across them and thought they were a type of mushroom at first! It took a bit of research to discover that they were actually a flowering plant!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      6 years ago from USA

      I've seen the ghost flower without knowing what it was - thanks for this very informative hub. Your closeup photographs are beautiful and capture all the delicate detail of these fragile plants. The next time I see them, I will definitely take a closer look! Great hub, voted up!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Dorsi, they are really cool! If you have a forest of deciduous trees, try taking a walk in July - they're most likely to appear in that month. They are fairly rare, so we were really excited to find them!

    • Dorsi profile image

      Dorsi Diaz 

      6 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

      Beautiful and interesting flower.I would love to come across those on an evening walk!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks Peggy! I love that poem, too - and it is quite true. The portion of the poem that says, "A touch will mar their snow" refers to the flower's tendency to melt away and turn black when touched. I love the analogy of the aloof sisterhood and the nuns, too!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I have never heard of nor seen a ghost flower but now thanks to your excellent hub I am at least acquainted with it should I ever run across one growing. I loved the wording by Mary Thatcher Higginson with reference to forest nuns with their heads bent as if in prayer. All votes up except funny. Thanks for the education regarding these most beautiful of parasites.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      I think it is the prettiest parasite I've ever seen, lol! It is very strange to see a plant without any chlorophyll or other coloration!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      My word, what a fascinating flower!!! This is amazing!!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      It has a very sporadic range, so it can be hard to find! The best time of year to find it is in July, as it resides underground most of the rest of the year. Thanks for the comment, RedElf!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 

      6 years ago from Canada

      What an interesting little flower. I have never seen its like up here, though we do have Beech and Elm trees. Lovely photos, too.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      It is interesting that the flower doesn't exist in the four-corner states.. it makes me wonder if the air is too dry for them. Of course, the altitude in CO might be too much for them. They're pretty rare even where they DO grow!

    • profile image

      ThePelton 

      6 years ago

      I have never seen a Beech tree here in Colorado. It must be too high altitude for them, and the Ghost Flower.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      It is a very unusual plant. They're fairly rare, so it is a neat experience to find a large grouping of them. The woods were absolutely filled with these flowers in July, and they really lit up the deeply shadowed areas of the forest!

    • anglnwu profile image

      anglnwu 

      6 years ago

      The ghost flower is stunning--never seen them before. Thanks for sharing such lovely pictures.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, Movie Master! I thought they were really interesting when we stumbled across them - apparently there are many plants which contain no chlorophyll!

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      They are absolutely beautiful, I have never seen anything like this before, the close up is amazing!

      Thank you for sharing.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      They have very strange flowers. We really thought they were fungi when we first encountered them, because they feel like mushrooms (very waxy and they sort of "melt" if you pinch them). They actually do have leaves, but the leaves are extremely tiny (no need for big leaves when they aren't being used to gather sunlight for photosynthesis). I love finding interesting things in nature in our own backyard! Thanks for the comment, Hyphenbird!

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      They look almost opalescent. I think they are lovely. Thanks for the information and the great pictures.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, TeriSilver! I thought the flowers were beautiful, in a strange sort of way!

    • TeriSilver profile image

      Teri Silver 

      6 years ago from The Buckeye State

      Excellent and informative. Great article!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      I could technically add the tag to be eligible for the "daily draw" if I wanted to.. I love seeing all the contest entries, though - they are really beautiful!

    • mjfarns profile image

      mjfarns 

      6 years ago from Bloomington, Illinois USA

      Ah yes, I remember seeing your name on the judge's list now! That makes more sense, wondered why I didn't see the "contest" tag :)

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, mjfarns! I'm actually one of the judges, so I'm ineligible to compete (for obvious reasons, lol)! Thanks for the compliment! These flowers are really odd to see in the dark woods - they almost appear to glow!

    • mjfarns profile image

      mjfarns 

      6 years ago from Bloomington, Illinois USA

      Leah, you should enter this in the photography category of the Hubpages writing contest going on right now! These pictures are FANTASTIC!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, ugagirl66 - we love to hike and often find interesting things along the trail!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      The Indian Pipe plant tends to be present in forests with Beech trees and Elm trees. I looked up the geographical spread of the plant and it doesn't appear to grow in Colorado (or Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico): http://uswildflowers.com/detail.php?SName=Monotrop...

    • ugagirl66 profile image

      Regina Harrison-Barton 

      6 years ago from South Carolina

      Very interesting. Great job capturing this.

    • ThePelton profile image

      ThePelton 

      6 years ago from Martinsburg, WV USA

      Interesting. I have been collecting wild mushrooms in Colorado now for about twenty five years and I don't recall seeing it here, but I could have missed it.

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Cardelean, I had never heard of them until we "accidentally" discovered hundreds of them growing in our local woods. The trail at Tom Erlandson is nearly guaranteed to have them in July, but they are very sporadic here, too. There are great gaps in their growing range - they have rather exacting growth conditions, since they can't survive without specific types of fungi!

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 

      6 years ago from Michigan

      Fantastic hub! We have Indian Pipes in Michigan but they are rare to find. One summer we saw some growing near my uncle's house and we found it facsinating. Thanks for sharing the information and great pics!

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      These flowers are really fascinating - and to think they belong to the same order as rhododendrons! Thanks for the comment, HikeGuy!

    • HikeGuy profile image

      Bryce 

      6 years ago from Northern California Coast

      Gorgeous! Vivid writing and photos. I enjoyed all the details and background you included in your article.

      Voted up and interesting. Thanks.

      -- Trent

    • leahlefler profile imageAUTHOR

      Leah Lefler 

      6 years ago from Western New York

      Thanks, rai2722! When we first stumbled upon these flowers, we thought they were fungi!

    • rai2722 profile image

      rai2722 

      6 years ago

      Awesome hub. Thanks for sharing!

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