Flower of the Day: Indian Pipe


Monotropa uniflora
Monotropaceae or Ericaceae
(depending which authority you consult)



Last year I posted that Indian pipe is a saprophyte.  Turns out that’s wrong.  Not only is it wrong, but it’s been known to be wrong for ten years or so.  But you still see a lot of references to “saprophytic plants” out there.  Once established, a “known fact” tends to stick around.  Like the tongue map myth, dispelled by Virginia Collings in 1974 – 41 years ago!

I’m usually skeptical of Wikipedia as a source of technical information, but this article on myco-heterotrophy is well-referenced.  In short, rather than obtaining nutrition through photosynthesis (as chlorophyll-containing plants do), and rather than obtaining nutrition through direct breakdown of organic matter (that’s the definition of “saprophyte”), plants like Indian pipe get nutrients by parasitizing certain fungi.


Back to the plant.  Monotropa means “once turned”, and uniflora means “one flowered” – a pretty good description of Indian pipe.  A single flowering stem containing a few scale-like leaves emerges from the ground and forms a single pendant flower at the apex; as the plant grows, the flower will start re-orienting itself until it’s pointing upwards.  And that’s pretty much it.  One other species of Monotropa can be found in the US; that one (pinesap, or M. hypopithys, meaning “under pine”) has multiple flowers on the stem.  Indian pipe stands only a few inches tall, and grows in clumps in deep, moist woods throughout much of the US (except the desert southwest and parts of the Rocky Mountains).  Despite being wide-ranging, it’s an unusual find, perhaps because of the very specific growing conditions.


Trivia: Indian pipe was a favorite of poet Emily Dickinson.

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