Botanica / Inspiration

Enchanting Ghost Pipe

Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora L.) is truly enchanting, surprising, and unique.  Whenever I stumble upon one in the forest, I find the urge to sit with this botanical irresistible – inspecting and studying its intricate, curious, gorgeous, and almost haunting shape and color.

Ghost Pipe is white in color, but turns black once it dies. Both are shown in this image. Photo taken at Clear Lake, Oregon in August 2012.

Also commonly called Indian Pipe and sometimes Fairy Smoke, Corpse Plant, Ice Plant, Dutchman’s Pipe, Ghost Flower, Convulsion Weed, Eyebright, or Fit Root, this perennial plant is native yet somewhat rare to much of the United States.  Many people mistakenly identify it as a fungus or mushroom, but it’s actually a wildflower.  The Latin name comes from Monotropa, Greek for “one turn” referring to the sharp curve in the top of the stem and uniflora which is Latin for “one-flowered”.

You can find Indian Pipe growing in rich humus in moist, mature, shaded forests at low to moderate elevations.  It typically flowers from June through September, and as the Latin name implies, only has a single flower per stem.  Ghost Pipe commonly grows in small clusters, but single stems are sometimes found.  Interestingly, Ghost Pipe is a food source for small bumble bees which collect nectar from the flowers. In turn, the bumble bees pollinate the plant which results in the plant producing tiny seeds.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Ghost Pipe is its color.  It doesn’t have chlorophyll like most plants, which means that it cannot produce its own food through photosynthesis.  Instead, it receives its nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi, a complex system of underground fungus that feeds the Ghost Pipe with nutrients from tree roots.  This makes Ghost Pipe difficult, if not impossible to propagate.  This also means that it doesn’t need sunlight to thrive, which is one of the reasons why it grows on dark and shaded forest floors.

Ghost Pipe droops over when young, then stands up as it matures. Each stalk has a single flower. Photo taken at Clear Lake, Oregon in August 2012.

Herbalists use Ghost Pipe as a nervine, to treat intense and excruciating pain, as an alternative to opiates and strong pain-killers.  I have never needed to use or harvest this plant, instead preferring to enjoy its beauty while in the woods.  Unless you have a need for the plant, it’s best to leave it alone.  Upon picking the flowers, they’ll release a clear and gelatinous substance, and then will quickly turn black and die.

According to Sean Donahue, this plant has cold and relaxing energetics, as well as nervine, antispasmodic/anticonvulsive, and diaphoretic actions.  He has documented his research and personal experiences with the plant on his blog: http://greenmanramblings.blogspot.com/2010/07/ghost-pipe-monotropa-uniflora.html

Emily Dickinson referred to Ghost Pipe as “the preferred flower of life.”

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2 thoughts on “Enchanting Ghost Pipe

  1. I was looking for a good picture of Ghost Pipe to put up on a website for my acupuncture business and I was hoping I could “borrow” the first one, crediting you (it’s not online yet or I would link you). I happened to notice you cited Sean Donahue – everything I learned about ghost pipe I learned at one of his lectures! It is a truly amazing plant. Please let me know if you’re not comfortable with me using your image and I will promptly take it down. 🙂 Great blog – I will be sure to follow. Green blessings!

    • Hi Sonia, Thank you so much for reading my blog and for your question! I would be honored if you “borrowed” my photograph of Ghost Pipe. 🙂 It really is an amazing plant, I found these last summer while on a hike around Clear Lake, Oregon. I look forward to seeing your website, and thanks again for reaching out to me! ~ Irene, Fawn Lily Botanica

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