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Indian Pipe

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

October 23, 2017

There is nothing better than spending a late summer morning walking the woods in search of whatever interesting you can find. Lately I've been out wondering the thick cool forests looking for some mushrooms. I've been successful at find the mushrooms that I am seeking but I also find other interesting things.

While walking I enjoy seeing so many familiar natural objects such as squirrel nests, various mushrooms, migrating birds, colorful wildflowers, all of which I consider to be old friends and it's always great to see old friends.

One of the more interesting things in the woods at this time of year is the Indian Pipe (Monotropa unifora). Also called the Ghost Plant or Corpse Plant, the Indian Pipe is a very unusual plant that grows late in the summer season and is found on the forest floor. Standing only 4-9 inches tall, you might over look this unique plant. But what sets the Indian Pipe apart from all other plants in the forest, it is pure white and sometimes pink.

You see, the Indian Pipe is a plant without chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the part of a plant that gives it the green color. It is also the part that takes in the sunlight and produces food for the plant. Without the green chlorophyll all plant would be white. It doesn't make food for itself like other plants but instead gets its nourishment through a mutually beneficial fungal and tree root (mycorrhizal) relationship. Ultimately it gets nourishment from the trees. This is a very complex relationship that is still not completely understood. 

Like all mycoheterotropic plants it has a specific relationship with a fungal host. In this case it is the Russulaceae group of mushrooms often just referred to as the Russula mushrooms. These are often bright red or yellow mushrooms that are so common at this time of year.

It might be that these plants have evolved away from standard chlorophyll and utilizing sunlight to make food because they grow deep in the forest under the deep dark shadow of the tall trees where sunlight is unable to penetrate.

It is a perennial plant, native to temperate regions of North America, and other northern regions across the planet. Just like other plants the Indian Pipe has a single flower on each stem. The species name, uniflora, means "one flower" describing its one bell flower per stem. After pollination the hanging flower turns upwards. The genus name Monotropa means "one turn" and describes the single turn the flower makes. After the flower turns upward the plant starts to turn black as the seeds start to mature.

It often grows in small clumps but can be seen as a single stem. The stem is waxy with tiny scale-like leaves that alternate on the stem. Of course there is no reason to have large leaves if you don't have to collect sunlight to make food.

In nature there is never any absolutes. There is always an exception to the rule. The Indian Pipe is one of those rule breakers and that's one of the reason why I enjoy seeing this plant. Also, I think the large clusters of Indian Pipe are very attractive and make good photographic subjects. Until next time...

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.

Photo by Stan Tekiela

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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