There are some weird and wonderful little plants growing in the shadows of our forests. Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is a perfect example. Also known as Ghost Plant or Corpse Plant, Indian Pipe is easy to mistake for a fungus when it pokes up through the moss of the forest floor.
Its flowers, leaves, and stems are ghostly white (more rarely, red or pinkish) andlack chlorophyll, the stuff that makes other plants green and allows them to capture energy from the Sun in the process of photosynthesis.
The plant is 2-10 in (5-25 cm) tall and has a single, bell-shaped flower hanging from each stem (that’s why the species name is uniflora… “one flower”). Indian Pipe tends to grow in clusters (there are three separate plants in the photo above).
If you pick Indian Pipe flowers, they will turn black in a few hours. All the more reason to leave them where they are. I am generally against wildflower picking, as a matter of principle.
Without the ability to photosynthesize, Indian Pipe cannot produce its own food. It has evolved to rely completely on underground fungi, tapping into the fungus’ fine threadlike structures, called mycelia, and taking the sugars that it needs. This relationship is called myco-heterotrophy. Indian Pipe is essentially a parasite on the fungus, because the fungus doesn’t benefit from its relationship with the plant.
The fungi that Indian Pipe relies on are themselves closely associated with the roots of trees. The mycelia of the fungi connect to a tree’s roots, increasing the tree’s ability to absorb water and nutrients from the soil. In exchange, the fungi get sugars manufactured by the tree. This partnership is common in nature and is known as a mycorrhrizal relationship.
So, ultimately, Indian Pipe gets its food from trees, using a fungus as a middleman of sorts. Pretty weird and wonderful, huh?
Indian Pipe is in the heath family (Ericaceae), which includes familiar plants such as huckleberry, cranberry, madrone, and rhododendron. Most of the these plants rely on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi. It seems likely that Indian Pipe evolved from an ancestral plant that was part of a mycorrhizal relationship and could photosynthesize its own sugars.
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