Pipe Dreams

Indian Pipe ~ Monotropa uniflora


In his September 24 post featuring flowers from along Austin’s Bull Creek, Steve Schwartzman included this quotation from Jordan Ellenburg’s book How Not to Be Wrong: “Impossible things never happen. But improbable things happen a lot.”

Only three days later, as if to prove the point, a small collection of flowers known as Indian Pipe greeted me from beneath a large pine at the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve. I’d seen photographs of them from locations as diverse as Montana and Massachusetts, but it never occurred to me that they might call Texas home. In fact, the plant prefers mature, moist, shaded forest, so the piney woods of east Texas provide a perfect environment.

Sometimes called the Ghost Plant because of its white, waxy appearance, the Indian Pipe has no chlorophyll and doesn’t depend on photosynthesis.

Once considered a saprophyte — an organism that feeds, absorbs, or grows on decaying organic matter — Indian Pipe today is understood as a parasite. Its roots extend in a web-like way through dead rotting leaves, extracting nutrients from the hyphae (fungal strands) of certain kinds of fungi.

Each stem bears a single flower which initially points down to the ground, helping to fend off rain. As the bud opens, it becomes parallel to the ground, making it more easily accessible for pollinating bees. After pollination, the flower becomes erect, and the seed capsule begins to mature; ripened seed is released through slits that open from the tip to the base of the capsule.  All three flower stages — pendant, perpendicular, and upright — are shown in the photo below.

Poet Emily Dickinson once called the Indian Pipe “the preferred flower of life.” In a letter to Mabel Todd, she recalled, “I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child, an unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances the mystery, never decreases it.”

So fond was she of the flower that she chose it for the cover of her first book of poems, published after her death.

Now that I’ve seen the flower, glowing like an apparition in deep forest shade, Emily’s poetic references seem especially appropriate:

White as an Indian Pipe
Red as a Cardinal Flower
Fabulous as a Moon at Noon
February Hour —


Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe –
‘Tis dimmer than a Lace –
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place –


Comments always are welcome.

60 thoughts on “Pipe Dreams

  1. I think you did well to put the first photograph first. Its detail-less background creates an eye-grabbing portrait. You must be excited to have seen this plant, intrinsically and because it was on the cover of Emily Dickinson’s posthumously published book.

    Just yesterday, having finished another book, I went back to the Ellenburg and resumed where I’d left off. How aptly his quoted sentences describe your finding of the Indian pipe at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve. Speaking of rarity, this species may be so in Texas but has a widespread distribution in North America.

    1. The first photo certainly is my favorite. The others are interesting, and useful for documentation, but there’s a lot to like about the first portrait: the delicate blush of color, its pristine condition, and the blurry pine-needle-and-wet-leaf background. Given the low light, I tried using flash, but the results seemed harsh and artificial.These images come very, very close to portraying what I saw.

      I’m often pleased with new discoveries, but ‘excited’ was the word for this one. I recognized it immediately, but couldn’t quite believe that I was looking at it, so I did the only reasonable thing; I plopped down on the ground and looked at it for a while.

  2. What a stunning beauty! The Indian Pipe looks so fragile, so beautifully captured and presented, Linda. We loved learning more about your native plant. Beauty is all around us.
    Wishing you a lovely weekend,
    The Fab Four of Cley

    1. Thank you, Dina. It’s odd and beautiful, all at once — perhaps that makes it oddly beautiful. It’s a real treat to find a surprise like this tucked into the woods. There are days when I’m especially happy to be carrying a camera, and this was one of them!

  3. Why am I not surprised that Emily Dickinson was drawn to this strange, ghostly plant? If Dickinson were alive today, I wonder if she would be a goth. Also, really liked this quotation: “Impossible things never happen. But improbable things happen a lot.” Sure applies to 2020.

    1. I think of her in white rather than black, but she certainly had a perspective on things that seems a bit Gothy. On the other hand, I rather like the fact that she wasn’t all pretty flowers and butterflies. She even added the Indian Pipe to her herbarium. The Harvard Library has it online here.

    1. That makes two of us who are surprised. I’ve seen wonderful photos of the flowers from other bloggers, so I recognized the plants when I saw them. They surely aren’t easy to confuse with anything else!

    1. They are fascinating. I hope to find more of them, or at least to see these in a later stage of development. I’d love to see some bees buzzing around them, and I’d enjoy being able to photograph the inside of the flower. Now that I know more about its structure, all I need is for one of them to lift its little head.

    1. To say that Texas has twelve ecoregions is one thing. To actually see what grows in those regions is something else entirely — and what a pleasure it is. I’m beginning to think there will be no end to the discoveries. Even the hill country has offered a surprise or two in the past, and I’m sure there will be more to come.

  4. Your photos and commentary are my introduction to Indian Pipe. I’m always fascinated by how knowledge continues to evolve, such as in coming to understand the plant’s parasitic nature. The first photo is a great, clear specimen shot, but for some reason I’m drawn to the waxy translucence of the the second. I can hear the Pipe saying “Look at this unusual feature! I’m really proud of it!”

    1. The photo you like is the baby of the group. That emerging plant couldn’t have been more than two inches tall — and did you see the friend who came along for the ride? Maybe that ant found its waxiness appealing, too.

      At first I thought some of the black spots on the plant were debris from the ground, but it seems the plant turns black when damaged, or as it ages. It turns completely black when picked or transplanted; in fact, transplantation isn’t possible. Several sources said the best way to encourage it is to develop the sort of rich soil it prefers — and a forest to go with it.

    1. Hmmm… I wonder if we could get gravy with those corpse fingers — like we do with chicken fingers? One of the names for the plant is ‘corpse flower.’ I wonder if Edward Gorey ever saw them? I think they’d be his sort of plant; I can imagine him drawing one reaching up from the grave.

  5. You see these quite often in the damp northeastern woods, excellent shots. They’re fascinating, but to me, their beauty has always been shadowed by some degree of distaste. I’m not at all surprised their unearthly, pallid appearance, as you said, glowing like an apparition, appealed strongly to Dickinson, with her gothic leanings and preoccupation with death. Almost always, the ones I’ve seen haven’t been pure white, and have a vivid pinkish cast to them, which goes along with their vampirish existence, what Dickinson or Poe probably would’ve described as a “hectic due.”

    1. It’s a fact that they aren’t stereotypically pretty, but they certainly are striking. I’m convinced that, had I seen them without any context at all, I would have assumed they were a fungus of some sort; they’re that odd. On the other hand, that pinkish hue is appealing; I’d love to see the plant from the first photo done in a fine porcelain, or even in satin glass.

      These had some fine fellow-travelers, too. Where there are fungi-dependent plants, there ought to be other fungi, and so there were. I saw a couple of varieties of mushrooms I’ve never come across. As soon as I have them identified (or have given up!) I’ll post those, too.

    1. I wondered if you had them in your neck of the woods. It made sense that you might — or that you at least would see them from time to time. I hope you had a great hiking day. I went down to the coast, and was shocked by what I found along the Bluewater Highway. There was far more destruction from Beta than I’d expected: dune loss, and such. I’ll have a few photos. Even Brazoria looks pretty sad from a combination of flooding, salt, and mowing. But, the goldenrod is beginning to bloom. You can count on goldenrod!

  6. Besides being beautiful, I like that the Indian Pipe is a living product which is not alive–“preferred flower of life” indeed.

    1. I was amused by an article I found that compared Emily Dickinson to the Indian Pipe, in the sense that she was a bit parasitical herself. Even granting her oddities, I’m not sure I’d go that far. It does work for the Indian Pipes, though. It’s amazing to think of all those processes going on underground. If I understand it correctly (and there’s no guarantee that I do), it’s the mycorrhizal fungi that form the link between the trees and the Indian Pipes. With no need for photosynthesis, they can live and bloom in the darkest woods.

    1. I was showing these photos to a friend today, and she said she thought Indian Pipes might be the botanical version of the giraffe. Now that I think about it, she might not be wrong. There are a lot of improbable creatures roaming around out there, and a lot of improbable growth taking place. Even in the course of human events, improbabilities abound!

    1. Thank you, Pete. It is quite a plant, and I’m so happy I got to see one. Needless to say, it was quite a surprise to glance beneath a pine tree and see these shining in the shadows!

  7. Indian pipes are beautiful in their ghostly simplicity. I remember learning about them as a child, fascinated by them. They are perfect on the book cover, and I enjoyed Emily’s words.

    1. ‘Ghostly simplicity’ is the perfect phrase. I don’t think I’d heard of them until about five years ago, when I saw them on others’ blogs. I wasn’t sure from the photos how I felt about them; they seemed a little weird and fungus-y. But when I finally saw the real thing, their complexity charmed me. It was only since finding them that I discovered Emily’s fondness for them, or that she included them in her herbarium sheets.

    1. I agree, about their fungi-like appearance. If I’d not seen photos of them, and discovered them without any context, I would have thought they were some strange form of fungi. I was pleased to find some true mushrooms near to them, with colors that made up for the paleness of the Indian Pipes.

  8. As always, Linda, your pictures are a tour de force, and could define that very overworked term, “eye candy.” And now you have piqued my curiosity as to whether this plant grows here in southern Ontario. I will check some references and talk to some of my botanist colleagues. It it does, I will make a point to find it next year. Thank you, as always, for an interesting observation.

    1. I feel certain these could be found in your area, David, particularly in places that are heavily forested. This map shows them as native there, although only U.S. counties are shown with any specificity. They’re unique, and eye-catching. Having seen them only in photos, I had no trouble at all recognizing them when I stumbled across them.

  9. Ghost Plant seems an apt name for this one, Linda. I’ve heard of them, but never seen one. Thank you for providing the research into its habitat — not much point in my searching for one here, ha!

    1. To the contrary! Enlarge this map and take a look at Ilinois. They’re much more common in your area than in Texas; in fact, they’re spread across the state. If you take a walk in the woods, especially woods that have nice, humus-y soil, you might well see them. If they’re around, and not just poking their little heads up into the world, I suspect you could spot them easily.

    1. They reminded me of white asparagus. I’ve never been inclined to eat that, just because of its appearance. An oddity of these is that they don’t survive picking — they turn black almost immediately. No Indian Pipe bouquets for us!

    1. They do like shade — or at least they can thrive in it, since they have no need of photosynthesis. It seems that pine forests are congenial spots for them, as well; I’ve not heard of pine drops, but I suspect the Indian Pipes might share the same neighborhood.

  10. They have a magical beauty that comes of looking so ephemeral. They might be mistaken for fungi in a large group. Magical things–the pay-off for keeping your eyes open in the woods.

    1. And in fact, they are ephemeral — at least in the sense that they don’t survive being picked. When I read Dickinson’s comment about picking them as a child, I wondered how long it took for her to experience their transformation.. From what I read, they’re impossible to transplant because of that; taken from the ground, that ghostly white turns a ghoulish black. Being uprooted has real consequences for them.

    1. It is a strange one, both in appearance and it its growth habits. If nothing else, I had to finally learn how to spell ‘mycorrhizae’ to talk about them. As for apparitions, I’m really surprised no one’s mentioned the whiter shade of pale that once was so popular!

        1. I hoped you would enjoy it, Liz. I suspect not everyone would, but it’s great music from “that” era, and I think it suits these flowers very well. I wonder if any pipe-player ever has fashioned a set of pipes in the shape of the flowers?

    1. Here’s something else I learned that seems so –strange. They’re part of the blueberry family. And, while they’re native here, they also grow in parts of Europe, such as Russia. It would be easy to confuse them with fungus; I certainly would have, had I not seen some photos prior to finding these.

  11. I’ve seen and photographed hundreds of these and have never found one as creamy as your first image. Most of ours are somewhat translucent, closer to pale white, and almost always carry much of the ground they came from. Finding a perfect single is a good bit of good fortune and you captured it perfectly..

    1. I thought about you as soon as I saw these, since you and Montucky were the ones who introduced me to them via photos. Even at the time, I noticed that faint blush of pink in the first plant. It was the last one I found; most did have bits of debris or, as I learned later, black spots that probably were damage incurred during the growth process. Believe me, I was thrilled to find them. I think I’ll go back on Sunday to see how much change has occurred in the past week. There’s no telling when I’ll find more, so a little extra effort seems wise.

      1. After a week, less at this point I imagine, the ones you found will probably all be erect with the fruiting bodies aimed straight upwards as some are approaching in your last picture. The black spots may be from damage incurred while exiting the soil as you mentioned. It also might be a bit of age as they turn black as they die.

  12. Alas, I have yet to come across the “preferred plant of life”. I need to pay better attention as I wander. Now, if only those birds will quit distracting me!

    1. Either flower or plant would work, I’d think. Personally, I would have assumed they were fungi rather than plants, given their appearance. I wonder if Emily Dickinson had to figure that one out when she first met them? Perhaps not, since she grew up in an area where they were quite common, and it seems she knew them from childhood.

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