Imagine…walking in the deep mountain woods of Appalachia in August. The deciduous trees are fully leafed. The hemlocks throw their great shadows. The undergrowth is sprawling to catch what rays of sun that do get through. There is a bit of color…a red berry on trillium, yellow coneflowers of some sort but mostly it is green, dark green and brown. Mostly it is tough, tangled and crowded. Mostly it is repeated themes of fallen logs, vines and growth. Then there is a small clearing where the plants are low and moss and lichen and tender seedlings can be seen. Imagine in this clearing a snow white, almost glowing white thing. It seems so fragile, foreign. This is Indian pipe.
Imagine…a mutually beneficial relationship among trees and fungus. Trees make sugar from air and sunshine. Funguses pull minerals from the soil. Hyphae and rootlets intermingle and an economy grows. But there is an interloper, a third party in this dark world. It is not clear what Indian pipe offers the cooperative, perhaps phosphorus. A plant that lives for God only knows how many years underground as a tangled web of roots; it has no need to surface except to reproduce. This is Indian pipe.
Imagine…something that tough putting out a growth this delicate. Indian pipe looks like a Williamsburg clay smoke pipe stuck in the ground by the stem end. The stalk, tiny vestigial leaves and single flower all seem to be of the same, strange ephemeral, mushroom like material. But this is no fungus; this is a true flower with all of a flower’s usual parts and functions. It is here to sexually reproduce with mixed gametes. It points downward offering both nectar and pollen until fertilized with the help of unknown pollinators then it points itself upward while the tiny seeds are growing. When the seeds are mature it launches them with some unknown (to us) power. The seeds are measured by their number of cells, they are that small. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them per flower…Many, many miniscule seeds with no food stores sent into the air...They are so light they travel a good distance. They find their way to the soil and when touched by exploring and cooperative hyphae they follow in their parents’ career and procure what is needed to sustain life and growth.
Imagine… a plant one truly can’t harvest, transplant or even touch without killing it. The Indian pipe flower blackens and dissolves to a gel when disturbed in any way. The underground roots are totally dependent on the mycorrhizal fungi network for life.
Imagine…a plant so rare that only 2 - 4 species are known. – Scientists disagree on the number. Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora ) is white and native to northern North America and the southeastern mountains plus parts of Asia. Pinesap (to North Americans) and Bird’s nest (to Brits) (Monotropa hypopithys) is yellow and native throughout the Northern Hemisphere north of the tropics And the bright red Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) is native to the Sierra Nevadas.
Imagine…my joy when I found a stand.
Many lovely pictures can be found with a simple google image search on "indian pipe". One of my favorites can be found here:
UPDATE May, 2005
I was reading an archived e-copy of The News & Record
(Piedmont Triad, NC); 7/12/2000 and saw this quote. I want another chance with Indian Pipe so I can check out the smell for myself!
Woodland gardens always provide surprises. The Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, did not appear last year. Though a bit late, they are in bloom now. They are listed as being odorless; that is because the average person never stoops so low; they have a sweet fragrance.
READING BACKGROUND FOR THIS W/U
Summer's Woods, a chapter from Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles:
The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers
a 1993 book by Jack Sanders.