Ghost Pipe – An Extraordinary Botanical Curiosity

By Eleonore Hebal

“All good things are wild and free.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Early this morning, as the first bird songs warbled through August’s lush canopies, I stumbled across the most curious and ethereal of creatures peeking up from beneath the towering firs on the southern edge of my property – Ghost Pipe! To my amazement, dozens of thriving colonies were slowly emerging from the dark, rich earth, tangled between layers of decaying leaves, fermenting mulberries, and crimson capped toadstools. Three tiny bees were pollinating each of the fragile, down-turned bell flowers, carefully entering upside down. Spellbound, I silently observed the surreal scene for at least five minutes before continuing on with my hike. Before long I spotted more ghostly colonies arising in rings around my favorite oak tree, coiling underneath a large patch of poison ivy, and surfacing between the dead wood and viridescent moss along the path. An eerie, otherworldly light seemed to pulse through the stunning, bright white florets that gracefully bowed down to the decay of the fertile forest floor, instead of the mighty sun above. A wide smile spread across my face, what a delightful little ally to have around, an unexpected gift of the wet summer.

The unusual life cycle and strange beauty of Ghost Pipe has intrigued me for years. This delicate and mysterious plant, also known as Monotropa Uniflora, Corpse Plant, Ghost Flower, and Indian Pipe, is a translucent non-photosynthetic flowering epiparasite. They do not require chlorophyll. Instead, they parasitize mushrooms, commonly forming relationships with at least a dozen different tree fungi, many of which are edible. Upon researching the plant a bit more today, I learned that Ghost Pipe is completely dependent on its hosts for nutrients, requiring no sunlight. Renowned botanist Ryan Drum noted, after much observation, that nothing seems to eat this plant and after consuming more than an ounce himself, he felt nauseous and very weird.

Resembling a spine and a brain-stem, Ghost Pipe is a powerful nervine, used by traditional herbalists for hundreds of years to stop seizures, convulsions, insomnia, migraines, mental disorders, and chronic muscle spasms. In 1898, Harvey Wickes Felter and John Uri Lloyd wrote in King’s American Dispensatory that the powdered root can be used “as a substitute for opium, without any deleterious influences.” Many herbalists have observed that Ghost Pipe often makes people feel more grounded and present in the moment when overwhelming pain has been dominating their physical and social experiences. It appears to heighten one’s pain threshold. Several of my friends have successfully eased chronic physical pain and anxiety with small doses of its deep purple tincture. Ryan Drum does give caution that the consumption of 15 ml or more of Monotropa tincture “can bring deep sleep and ultra vivid dreams, often bizarre, frequently erotic.” The hazards and/or benefits of long-term regular usage of its tincture are still undocumented.

As twilight approached, I decided to visit the magical little ghosts again. A soft, shimmering light enveloped the entire Tomorrow River Valley, as the heavy summer sun sank below the horizon. As soon as I entered the forest, a serene feeling washed over me. I began to notice many new, or at least previously unnoticed, fungi. On my way to the fir grove I spotted at least a dozen more pipes and large colonies of turkey tail and coral mushrooms. As I came upon the ethereal little creatures that had enchanted my mind all day, I realized they looked more alive than ever in this in-between hour. Eerily quivering in the twilight breeze, they invited me to learn their secrets. Smiling, I accepted the generous invitation, mesmerized by their ghostly petals. As an herbalist, I like to believe that the plants choose you sometimes, especially when they emerge on the outskirts of your home. Perhaps these beautifully weird little parasites have something important to teach me. I will be a patient student and sit with them this year, always holding in mind my favorites quote by Thoreau, “All good things are wild and free.”

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