Once Turned, Under the Pines


aka false beechdrops, yellow bird’s-nest
Monotropa hypopitys


On a recent nice evening I talked Steve into going for a walk with me to look for certain ferns.  He agreed to go when I promised not to take my camera.  This is sort of a left-handed good luck tactic, as I seldom fail to find something interesting when I don’t have my camera handy.

It worked: we found this tiny stand of pinesap on a hillside above the trail.  I took a few crappy iPhone pics, which later served as a guide, since I was able to look at the geotag and find the stand again, this time with camera and tripod but sans Steve.


As I wrote about Indian pipe last month, the Monotropas aren’t actually saprophytes; they get nutrients by parastizing certain fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with certain trees.  As such, they have very specific growing requirements, and are somewhat rare within their range.

“Once turned, under the pines” is a literal translation of the botanical name of this plant, which is found throughout the US and Canada except for four states and the extreme north.  While researching I found that ITIS* does not recognize the species name, and instead reverses the genus and specific epithet, calling it Hypopitys monotropa.  This is probably based on genetic studies, as so many recent taxonomic reclassifications are.

Pinesap is endangered in Florida and threatened in Iowa.


*the Integrated Taxonomic Information System, about which I wrote yesterday


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.