Scientific name: (Monotropa uniflora)
Common name: Indian pipe
(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Aaron Serene
(Spring 2000) and Christopher Carns (Spring 2004) for Biology 220W at Penn State
Appearance and Ecological Role
uniflora is commonly called "Indian pipe", a name which reflects the overall
shape of the mature plant: a single stem with a prominent distal bend and
expanded, flowered tip. It is also called the "corpse plant" and the "ghost
flower" which reflect its pale, waxy coloration and conspicuous lack of the
green, chlorophyll pigment. This lack of chlorophyll is further indicative of
the non-photosynthetic, unusual lifestyle of this plant. Instead of relying on
green plant photosynthesis, this species utilizes a vast network of roots and
associated mycorrhizal fungi to gain nutrients and energy products from the
roots of surrounding living plants (thus functioning as an epiparasite).
Further, these roots and fungi also gain nutrients and energy from the decaying
organic materials in its soil habitat (which places M. uniflora into a
saprotrophic ("decomposer") ecological role).
Monotropa uniflora has a single,
white, waxy stem that is 3 to 9 inches long and 0.75 to 1.0 inches in diameter.
It has no leaves (which is logical since it does not photosynthesize). Scaly
bracts are found in place of its vestigial leaves. At the bent terminus of the
stem there is a single (rarely double) bell-shaped, white to pink-tinted flower.
The stems and flowers arise from a fibrous root system any time between May and
October. The flowers are pollinated by small bees. After pollination, the flower
turns upright and forms a seed capsule. After the tiny seeds mature, they are
dispersed through the forest ecosystem by the wind. Once the seeds are released
the above ground flower and stem blacken and wither away.
Monotropa uniflora are found in dark, humus-rich forests throughout temperate
North America. It is always found in well shaded habitats in which its
saprotrophic and parasitic life styles would be well adapted for survival. Beech
trees have been described as a favored component of M. uniflora's optimal forest
habitat. This may be due to the preference of beech species to cool, moist soil
conditions which would be expected to also favor M. uniflora. On our nature trail, M. uniflora is most abundantly found in the mixed American beech forest
alongside the Ravine Trail. June, especially in a wet year, is a particularly
good time time to see these very interesting "ghost" plants.