I was walking through the woods with a few of the children when my daughter suddenly called out.
“Dad! What type of mushroom is THIS?”
She was pointing at a strange cluster of white growth emerging from the ground. As I took a closer look, I realized it was a strange wildflower I’d only seen in guidebooks: the Indian Pipe, also known as the “Ghost Plant”, or most properly, as Monotropa uniflora.
Unlike normal plants, the Indian Pipe doesn’t produce chlorophyll, which means it doesn’t take its energy from the sun. Instead, it seems to be a parasite on specific mycorrhizal fungi that co-relate with certain trees.
That means a tree gets energy from the sun, shares it with a fungi connected to its roots, then the Indian pipe connects its roots to that fungi and steals some of the energy its receiving from the tree.
Now that’s an amazing design – and it’s also the reason you don’t see Indian Pipe plants very often. They like rich soil, mature trees of specific species that must also be interrelating with specific fungi or the plant cannot grow.
I’ve been looking for one for a very long time. In this particular patch of woods I found four or more additional clusters of Indian Pipes after my daughter spotted the first group. Here’s another picture I took:
To start searching out your own wildflowers, I recommend the Audubon Society’s guide – it’s excellent.
That’s where I first saw the Indian pipe.