FOREST GHOST: Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora Eric Hunt, Arkansas Native Plant Society

No, you didn’t just imagine those otherworldly clusters of waxy ghost flowers you tripped over in the deepest woods of Arkansas. Commonly known as indian pipe, these unusual plants have no chlorophyll to make food from sunlight, and instead suck nutrients from other organisms. They look like zombie daffodils, and they thrive in darkness.

Many people mistakenly assume indian pipes are a fungus. In fact, these ethereal plants are a member of the blueberry family and are pollinated by brave bumblebees willing to venture into the forest’s murkiest depths.

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Theo Witsell, an ecologist with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and co-author of “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Arkansas,” helped shed some light on these elusive blooms.

Where can we find indian pipes in Arkansas? 

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Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is scattered throughout the forested areas of Arkansas but is mostly found in upland habitats. That means it’s rare or absent over most of the lowlands in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (the Delta) of eastern Arkansas, but it’s widespread in the uplands in the northwestern half of the state, as well as on Crowley’s Ridge in eastern Arkansas. And it is scattered, but less common, in the uplands of the Gulf Coastal Plain in the south.

Are they useful in any medicinal or poisonous or recreational way?

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Well, they have certainly been used for medicinal purposes — to treat everything from pain and fever to anxiety and depression to seizures, but as a disclaimer, I’m no doctor and can’t recommend their use. Individuals should consult their doctor and conduct their own research before touching or using any wild plant for food or medicinal uses.

Are they fungi? Flowers? Something else?

No, they aren’t fungi, they’re plants. They have flowers and make seeds like other higher plants — they just aren’t green. Believe it or not, they’re in the same family as blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries, rhododendrons and wintergreen (the family Ericaceae). They’re pollinated by insects that are drawn to their flowers, including bees. In addition to being weird looking, they can do some odd things. For example, because they don’t photosynthesize, they can grow in darker environments than most other plants, like beneath dense thickets of evergreen trees and shrubs. They can also grow from the ground to full size (3-8 inches) in just a couple of days when conditions are right (a period of sudden moisture after a dry period, which triggers growth and flowering).

Why do they look like that? 

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They aren’t green because they lack chlorophyll (the pigment that allows green plants to make food from the sun by the process of photosynthesis). They don’t need chlorophyll because they evolved a different means of getting their food.

Is it true that they are vampires to trees, sucking at their roots for nutrients?

Not exactly, but kind of! Indian pipe is parasitic, but not on trees directly. In technical terms, it’s a mycoheterotroph (pronounced mike-O-het-eh-ro-trofe), which means it’s a parasite on fungi that live in the soil. But the fungi they parasitize live in symbiosis with trees, so they do ultimately get some of their energy from trees.