Exploring the Mysterious Underworld of Plant Life: The Indian-Pipe Plant (Monotropa uniflora)

On a trail walk in Grass Lake Nature Park in Olympia, my friend and I stopped short at the sight of these pale, almost shimmering, white stalks growing in a clump in the undergrowth. They resembled hunched over asparagus. They had to be something special. We got down on our knees and studied them close up. They were spooky feeling!            

See Glossary post for more information on this fascinating life form

We discovered they were quite special. They were listed in Pojar and MacKinnon, authors of the authoritative text Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, under “Oddballs.” The authors explain,

“Most plants make their own food through photosynthesis, but some plants get their food in other ways. Such plants often have little or no chlorophyll, and so do not look particularly green. The weird appearance of these botanical oddballs commonly arouses wonder and puzzlement (‘What is that thing?!’), and so we have grouped them in a special section on their own.”

They listed four different types of plants in this grouping: Insectivorous, Saprophytic, Parasitic, and in a special category of its own, the Indian Pipe. As Pojar and MacKinnon described: “The roots of Indian-pipe, a member of the wintergreen family, are connected to the roots of coniferous trees by a specialized combination of fungal filaments and plant roots called a mycorrhiza (meaning fungus-root). Nutritionally it is a parasite, but a very special one, because it is not connected directly to its host.”

I learned more about this unusual relationship in a book by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady, Tree: A Life Story. This book centers on one particular Douglas-fir and then by root and branch examines all that touches its existence and reciprocally, all it influences in turn. (If you had to pick the center of the universe, why not a magnificent tree?) As they studied the tree, they noticed Indian pipe living in close relationship to this fir: “their faintly pink stems and bowed heads poking up like pale, sad worms above the forest litter.”

Since it has no chlorophyll of its own (it turns black as it matures), it does not produce sugars either for itself or for its mycorrhizal partner, and yet Boletus is there. It turns out that the fungus attached to the Indian pipe roots also attaches to the roots of nearby conifers, such as Douglas-fir; the Boletus siphons nutrients out of the conifer and transfers them directly to the Indian pipe. No one knows what, if anything, the Indian pipe contributes to the fungus or to the Douglas-fir. It might contribute nothing; if so, this is one of the rare instances in nature of a free lunch. (page 58)

This reads like a botanical mystery story, ripe for discovery by some future brilliant plant detective. Meanwhile, I want to return to this spot and see if I can witness this mature phase when this plant turns from a sickly white to black to…whatever happens next. Who knew the plant world held so much suspense!

4 thoughts on “Exploring the Mysterious Underworld of Plant Life: The Indian-Pipe Plant (Monotropa uniflora)

  1. I saw a couple taking photographs of the Indian pipe plant during one of my mushroom foraging expeditions. It is fascinating. Most fascinating is your excerpt from Suzuki and Grady about the threesome: Douglas fir, boletus, and pipe plant. Maybe I’ll pique Mia’s interest in learning more about this mystery. Thanks for sharing! -Carolina ________________________________

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