Flower of the Day: Indian Pipe

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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.

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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.

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

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