Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer Flowers: Indian Pipe

Monotropa uniflora (Indian Pipe or Ghost Pipe) is truly a remarkable, strange plant.  Its appearance is striking enough:  It is a stark, ghostly white color, growing in clusters from 2-8 inches tall with a single nodding flower and tiny, white leaves that look like scales on the stems.  It is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae), which also includes plants such as blueberries and rhododendrons.  It is found throughout most of North America in the dark understory of rich, moist woods.

M. uniflora does not photosynthesize or produce chlorophyll, which is why it is not green like most other plants.  What distinguishes plants like this from fungi is, among other things, the fact that they reproduce through flowers, rather than through spores.  Before researching this post, based on older references, I was under the impression that M. uniflora was a saprophyte, meaning it feeds off of decaying matter to gain nutrients.  This turns out to be wrong.  According to Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (Spira 2011), it is actually an epiparasite.  A parasite obtains nutrients from another living thing.  An epiparasite obtains nutrients from another parasite.  M. uniflora obtains nutrients from micorryzhal fungi, which are connected to and parasitic on the roots of nearby green plants.  Needless to say, it doesn't transplant well.  It is basically the plant that says, "everything you learned in science in school is a gross oversimplification." 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 M. uniflora on the Maryland Appalachian Trail near the (Maryland) Washington Monument (June 2010).
 A cluster of M. uniflora on the Ridge Trail of Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park (June 2010).
A cluster with some of the flowers showing.  This one was taken on Cedar Run Trail in Shenandoah National Park (June 2009).

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