Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is a plant most closely related to the blueberry and rhododendron. Its flowers hang downward, the leaves are scale-like, and the plant reaches a height of 25 cm (10 inches). Lacking the green pigment, chlorophyll, live Indian Pipes are whitish in color. They turn black when dead, so the plant also has been called “corpse plant” and “ghost flower.” Indian Pipe grows from spring through fall in rich soils of shady woodlands – typically in areas with decaying plant material and often near decaying stumps. These conditions are right for many kinds of fungi, as well. Because the plant does not depend on photosynthesis to create food, it can grow in dark or very shady places – just like fungi. Technically, Indian Pipe is called a mycoheterotroph because this plant actually is parasitic on fungi! Fungi (molds and mushrooms) typically are decomposers that obtain nutrients by breaking down dead organic matter, but some kinds of fungi form a “mycorrhizal” relationship with the roots of trees. The fungus breaks down organic matter, part of which is absorbed by the roots of trees – therefore the tree is benefited. However, the relationship is reciprocal because some of the sugars produced by photosynthesis in the tree’s leaves are transported to the roots, where some is absorbed and used by the fungus. As a result, both fungus and tree are benefited by a mutual relationship. Energy for the Indian Pipe ultimately is parasitized from the mycorrhizal fungus. The roots of the Indian Pipe tap into the fungus and pick up some of the nutrients that the fungus had absorbed from the tree. Studies have shown that labeled carbon-dioxide taken in by a tree’s leaves was transported to the roots, absorbed by the fungus, then by the Indian Pipe. Thus, the life of the Indian Pipe depends on a three-way relationship with a fungus and another plant. The life strategy of the Indian Pipe makes it look vaguely like a fungus, and live where mushrooms may be common, but in fact it is a very unusual plant.
Photo Credit: Kory Roberts