July 16, 2019indian pipe

One of the joys of writing these articles is discovering something entirely new about some familiar plant or animal or insect. Take, for instance, the Indian pipe. We have found specimens of this strange-looking plant almost every year and always marveled at its translucent, waxy appearance. Indian pipe grows only five or six inches tall and has drooping flowers and tiny, scale-like leaves. It doesn't need chlorophyll, the green substance employed by most plants to create carbohydrates using sunlight, since it obtains all needed nutrients from other plants. In fact, the entire Indian pipe is white and thrives in total shade where few other plants grow. It is only present a few weeks and as soon as blooming and seed making is completed, the aboveground parts turn black and wither away.

Each plant consists of a single stem bearing a five-petaled mostly-closed flower that hangs downward, reminiscent of a clay pipe whose stem has been stuck in the earth. Scientists call it Monotropa, meaning "once-turned", referring to the fact that the flower faces the ground at first and then turns straight upward once it begins developing seeds. Though it may not look much like a typical blossom, the Indian pipe flower has everything it needs to produce seeds, including nectar and pollen. Also, Dr. Olson, of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Nova Scotia Agricultural College writes that "the floral organs may be releasing other substances detectable to the insects alone" and that "insects may perceive colors (in the flower) that make the plant even more attractive, helping it to stand out like a beacon on the shaded forest floor".

I had heard that the Indian pipe was a parasite, an organism that obtains its nutrients from another living organism. However, scientists discovered that its thick, brittle cluster of roots didn't contact those of any other growing plant and decided it must instead be a saprophyte, obtaining its food from decaying material in the soil. Now, botanists believe (are you ready for this?) the plant is an "epiparasite" a parasite that forms a relationship with another parasite to obtain its nutrients; that is, it steals food from one plant which previously got it from yet another plant. They have observed that its roots connect with the filaments of certain fungi in the soil, which in turn have penetrated into live tree roots. Scientists have not yet determined whether the fungus gains anything from its attachment to the Indian pipe (a common situation in such an arrangement), but at least one botanist postulated that it might be receiving phosphorus or other minerals.

All parasitic relationships become established when a seed first germinates. Such seeds are spread in bird droppings or are carried by an insect, animal, or the wind, but they must land on suitable host tissue, particular fungus filaments in the case of Indian pipe. These reportedly give off a chemical stimulus to receptive seeds causing them to begin development. A modified lateral root emerges from the seed that attaches to the host, forming a disc which glues itself firmly to a filament. The root tip then penetrates the host, and once inside establishes connections by attaching its conductive tissue to that of the invaded fungi.

Indian pipes favor deep woods, and often appear after a heavy, soaking rain in mid-summer. The plant can't be picked because its flesh soon blackens when cut or even touched, and oozes a clear, gelatinous substance. Its white color and this tendency to liquefy earned it the name ice plant, but it is also called ghost flower, corpse plant, and wax plant. Native people employed it as an eye lotion as well as a medicine for colds and fevers, and early settlers used it to treat spasms, fainting spells, and nervous conditions, giving it the names convulsionroot, fitroot, and convulsionweed. I understand that herbalists seldom recommend it now, however, as it has been found to contain toxic substances that have sometimes caused more harm than good.

When you see this little plant in the woods, remember this Native American legend from Cherokee Plants, a book by Mary Chiltosky. "Before selfishness came into the world-that was a long time ago-the Cherokee people were happy sharing the hunting and fishing places with their neighbors. All this changed when Selfishness came into the world and man began to quarrel. The Cherokee quarreled with tribes on the east. Finally the chiefs of several tribes met in council to try to settle the dispute. They smoked the pipe and continued to quarrel for seven days and seven nights. This displeased the Great Spirit because people are not supposed to smoke the pipe until they make peace. As he looked upon the old men with heads bowed, he decided to do something to remind people to smoke the pipe only at the time they make peace. The Great Spirit turned the old men into greyish flowers we now call "Indian Pipes" and he made them grow where friends and relatives have quarreled. He made the smoke hang over these mountains until all the people all over the world learn to live together in peace." Amen.