Indian Pipe: A Peculiar Parasite

Indian Pipe: A Peculiar Parasite
Indian Pipe (POTW large)

The Indian Pipe, or Monotropa uniflora, is an exceptionally unique plant, both for its appearance and its unusual means of survival. This photograph of a cluster of Indian Pipe was taken beside a trail in New Haven County in Connecticut, only one of many areas where you can find this strange organism dwelling upon shady forest floors.

One of the most striking characteristics of the Indian Pipe is its white coloration, a trait which certainly inspired an alternative common name, the “Ghost Plant”. This strange appearance has lead many individuals to mistakenly believe that they are a form of peculiarly-shaped mushroom. But the Indian Pipe is undoubtedly a plant which, perhaps surprisingly, shares common ancestry with familiar species including the Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron and Blueberry.

Unlike its relatives, though, the Indian Pipe doesn’t possess green leaves. This would seem to present a special problem, for green leaves appear green because they contain chlorophyll, a chemical which allows plants to draw energy from the Sun through photosynthesis. Without green leaves, and without the Sun as an energy source, how can the Indian Pipe possibly survive? The answer is simple: it’s a parasite.

Indian Pipe taps into any of a variety of mushroom species, drawing energy exclusively from the host fungus. It’s a one-way deal in which the mushroom doesn’t benefit; the Indian Pipe essentially takes all the energy it needs and leaves the mushroom to work overtime in order nourish itself.

However, the host fungus also cannot draw energy from the Sun, and must instead tap into the root system of plants, shrubs, and trees that can. Thus, Indian Pipe basically uses fungus as a “middle man” to siphon energy produced by its photosynthetic relatives.

About this Photograph
Photograph of Indian Pipe © 2011 J.G. Coleman Photography. View more photography by Trails of Freedom Chief Researcher, Justin Coleman, at J. G. Coleman Photography.