When I’m in the woods I always have an eye out for Indian pipes, also known as ghost plant, Dutchman’s pipe, corpse plant and convulsion weed. This unique flowering plant gets my attention for its lack of color. Less than ten inches high it’s almost totally white and somewhat translucent. Black flecks are common and rarely the plant takes on a pink hue. It gets its name from its shape. Each stem bears a single flower head. That nodding flower head makes it look like an upright clay smoking pipe.
You won’t find this delicate plant out in the sunshine. It likes the shade of the woods. Devoid of chlorophyll, it lacks the typical green foliage of other plants. Instead of leaves it has what appear to be translucent scales on its stem. And, unlike most plants, it doesn’t need green leaves that use the sun to make its food. It lets the trees do that for it.
This parasitic non-photosynthetic perennial herb (scientific name: monotropa uniflora) feeds on the mycorrhizal fungi that feed on the roots of trees, especially beech trees. A mass of dark, brittle roots produces the above ground plant, which generally grows in clusters. It’s found in the temperate regions of North, South and Central America and Asia, according to Britannica.com.
Each plant blooms for about one week annually. The flower produces an oval capsule. As that capsule matures the nodding flower becomes upright, in line with the stem. That capsule develops slits to release the seeds. Bumblebees are an important pollinator, along with various other fly and bee species.
Indian pipes flower a few days following a rain anytime from early summer to early autumn. This year it appeared in mid-September in my area (at least that’s the first time I noticed it). This isn’t the kind of flower you can pick and bring in the house to put on display in a vase. Indian pipes are quite fragile. When touched, they begin to turn black. Some call it the ice plant, because it’s so tender it melts away in the hands like ice.
According to sources like healthbenefitstimes.com and medicimalherbinfo.org the traditional medicinal uses for the plant are to combat convulsions, spasms, fainting spells, anxiety and other nervous conditions and it is usually administered as a tea. It is also used as a poultice for healing sores.
Those alleged medicinal uses come with a warning, however. The safety of this plant is undetermined and it may be toxic. So perhaps it’s best just to admire this unusual flower and let it be as is.