Virtual Nature Trail

Scientific name: (Monotropa uniflora)
Common name: 
Indian pipe

(Information for this species page  was gathered in part by Aaron Serene (Spring 2000) and Christopher Carns (Spring 2004) for Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington).

Indian Pipe plants

Appearance and Ecological Role

Monotropa uniflora is commonly called "Indian pipe", a name which reflects the overall shape of the mature plant: a single stem with a prominent distal bend and expanded, flowered tip. It is also called the "corpse plant" and the "ghost flower" which reflect its pale, waxy coloration and conspicuous lack of the green, chlorophyll pigment. This lack of chlorophyll is further indicative of the  non-photosynthetic, unusual lifestyle of this plant. Instead of relying on green plant photosynthesis, this species utilizes a vast network of roots and associated mycorrhizal fungi to gain nutrients and energy products from the roots of surrounding living plants (thus functioning as an epiparasite). Further, these roots and fungi also gain nutrients and energy from the decaying organic materials in its soil habitat (which places M. uniflora into a saprotrophic ("decomposer") ecological role).

Monotropa uniflora has a single, white, waxy stem that is 3 to 9 inches long and 0.75 to 1.0 inches in diameter. It has no leaves (which is logical since it does not photosynthesize). Scaly bracts are found in place of its vestigial leaves. At the bent terminus of the stem there is a single (rarely double) bell-shaped, white to pink-tinted flower. The stems and flowers arise from a fibrous root system any time between May and October. The flowers are pollinated by small bees. After pollination, the flower turns upright and forms a seed capsule. After the tiny seeds mature, they are dispersed through the forest ecosystem by the wind. Once the seeds are released the above ground flower and stem blacken and wither away.

Monotropa uniflora are found in dark, humus-rich forests throughout temperate North America. It is always found in well shaded habitats in which its saprotrophic and parasitic life styles would be well adapted for survival. Beech trees have been described as a favored component of M. uniflora's optimal forest habitat. This may be due to the preference of beech species to cool, moist soil conditions which would be expected to also favor M. uniflora. On our nature trail, M. uniflora is most abundantly found in the mixed American beech forest alongside the Ravine Trail. June, especially in a wet year, is a particularly good time time to see these very interesting "ghost" plants.

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This page was last updated on October 13, 2013  

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