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I first encountered this plant years ago during a walk of the trails one july day, and have been hooked on them since. Each year I look forward to seeing them during late july into august. The best spots to view them on the property is on the Homestead trail and Stream trail. While most patches are comprised of 3-6 individual flowers, I have come across them singly and in very large numbers. The striking white color, appearing in the middle of summer greenry, makes it stand out easily. As you view this plant, one really wonders, “what is it ?”.
Indian Pipe is a plant not a fungus. It belongs to Order Ericales (Heaths). It is also known commonly as Ghost Flower, Corpse Plant, Ghost Pipe, Dutchman’s Pipe, Ice Plant, Fairy Smoke, Eyebright, Convulsion Weed, and Fit Root.
Indian Pipe is a unique herbaceous plant, easily spotted by it’s waxy-white color. Sometimes it can be pinkish colored. Indian Pipe lacks chlorophyll and thus does not use photosynthesis. Without the need to capture sunlight with leaves, Indian Pipe is morphologically reduced, having no branches and vestigial leaves that are reduced to membranous fleshy scales. It is a perennial plant which can reach 20cm in height. Blooms first appear in mid July and continue into late August. The number of flower parts may vary but there is only a single flower on each stem. The flowers droop down towards the ground at first later becoming erect as the fruit matures. The fruit contains extremely small seeds.
Not requiring light for photosynthesis, you can find this plant growing in the deepest shade of forests. They form relationships with forest trees and fungus which allows them to tap into their nutrient systems. It’s important to understand that forest trees are not independent organisms but survive in a relationship with fungus in their roots, which is mutually advantageous to both parties and they work as partners. The tree gives to the fungus the carbohydrates that it synthesises in its leaves. In return, the fungus supplies the tree with water and nutrients absorbed by its hyphal system in the forest soils. It is believed that Indian Pipe tapes into this system as a parasite, as it offers nothing in return to the tree-fungus nutrient system. Indian Pipe is a plant of the deep forest and requires well developed forest soils.
Indian Pipe is best left alone, as it very fragile and will leak a clear, gelatinous substance when picked or wounded. It will quickly die and turn black when bruised, picked, or transplanted. Propagation from seed is very difficult. Best way to see Indian Pipe on your property is to create the conditions that allow it to grow, i.e. building up forest soils.
Indian Pipe is believed to have many medicinal values, such as using the juices as an eye lotion, or as a treatment for spasms, fainting spells, nervous conditions, as well as colds and fevers. The crushed plant can be rubbed on bunions and warts in order to treat them and the flowers have been chewed in order to bring relief from toothache.