August 17, 2014

Indian Pipe: A Strange and Ghostly Plant

July 11

Last month I spotted some odd white forms on the forest floor. I thought that they might be eggs of some sort, but when I touched their smooth surfaces, I could feel that they were stuck to the ground, not moveable as you would expect eggs to be. I turned to my friend Susan Sawyer, a naturalist on the staff of the Four Winds Nature Institute to solve the mystery. She guessed that they might be the beginnings of Indian Pipe, a plant lacking in chlorophyll.

July 23

Sure enough, as the weeks went by, it became clear that these were indeed the Indian pipe plant.

July 31

As they raised themselves further above ground, their shapes became familiar to me: a stem, with a few white leaves ending in a drooping white flower. The plants are white because they lack the energy-making chlorophyll, so instead they are parasites, like fungi, and their hosts are fungi.

August 5

It is very startling to come across these white flowers, the only white, except for the occasional pale mushroom, in an environment of brown and green. They are graceful, and seem so incredibly vulnerable.

August 10

Indian pipe seems too strange to be like other flowers, having stamens and pistil, but one day I happened to see a bumblebee in the woods, going from one flower to another. This prompted me to take a look inside, and sure enough, those flowering parts were there. I learned from the Indian pipe link above that the plant, pollinated by the bumblebees, will later form seeds. A flowering plant, ordinary and wondrous.


  1. It sure isn't ordinary. I have looked and looked for these lovely plants all around where I live. I think we might be too far south or else I just haven't been lucky enough to stumble upon them. It is fun to see them in your pictures. I think you found a real treasure.

  2. I encountered the white bell-shaped plant only once in my life, in our overgrown garden in Hershey PA in 1974. No one knew what I meant and when I went back later it was gone. Thank you for identifying it with your spot-on photo! It's like recognizing a dream!

  3. Lisa, I meant ordinary in the sense of a flower. The plant itself, according to Wikipedia, is fairly rare, though I see it scattered in the woods near me.

    Linda, it's nice that you got to see one, and that you have remembered it all these years.

  4. Indian Pipe is not uncommon in the PA woods near me, but I have always found them intriguing and love coming upon them during a walk. I've never been lucky enough to follow their growth progress, though, as you have with these photos!

    They get their energy through fungi that, in turn, get energy from trees. Such an amazingly complex chain of nourishment.

  5. Lisa should not be too far South to see them. We have them in many counties in North Carolina, and I've been privileged to see them often through the years.

  6. Thanks for your comments, annemichael and GDANNY. It seems that those of us who've seen these plants feel very privileged for the experience, as we should be.

  7. i see these wondrous plants fairly frequently living in the woods by a cedar swamp here on the Cape.