Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) a relative of the Heath family, is a unique plant because it contains no chlorophyll and, therefore, cannot make its own food. This rather un-plant-like characteristic results in it having to make a living as a saprophyte. This means that it lives on dead or decaying organic matter found in the soil, much as a mushroom does. Its mat of thickly tangled roots then absorbs the released nutrients. The thicker and more tangled the roots, the more surface area is exposed to the nutrients.
The plant grows in clusters of thick waxy translucent stems, 3 to 8 inches in height. The stems end in a nodding bell-like flower that looks something like an Indian peace pipe, hence its name. It only has tiny bracts, which are modified leaves. The whole plant is of the same color that can range from white to gray to pale pink. It is the bell-like flowers that give away its kinship to plants such as the blueberry. Because it grows from seeds, new plants will grow wherever the seeds happen to land.
Its monotone paleness also earns it the alternate name of Ghost Plant. After the seed is formed the flower becomes erect, and when the seed has completed its development, the entire plant turns black and stiff. This phase explains its third name – Corpse Plant.
For all its diverse names, it has a number of traditional medicinal uses. Juices of the plant were used to treat sore eyes and to dissolve warts. Root teas were made to treat nervous disorders. Interestingly, the plant juices have been shown to be bactericidal.
So the next time you see an Indian Pipe, remember all of its struggles, its forms, its names and its uses. This humble plant has a lot of interesting things going for it.