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Avatar_SusanVernon I strolled to the cemetery at English Camp the other day to look at oak trees but soon found myself retreating from an abundance of yellow jackets in the grass. My short stay was disappointing but on the way back to the car I caught sight of a wonderful wildflower growing in the duff. It was Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). I had almost forgotten about the enigmatic little plant that blooms late in our wildflower season, but there it was in its waxy cloak of milky white translucence.

Once keying on its image, I realized there were dozens of pipes in the duff nestled under the green sheen of late-blooming salal and Oregon grape laden with blue berries. As classic forest-dwellers, the plants were flourishing in the shade of Douglas firs, Pacific madrones, and big-leaf maples. I bent down to get a closer look at the pipes and thought what a contrary presence they were in this evergreen world.

And then, inexplicably, it began to rain on what I thought was going to be another of our recent string of sunny days. Many of the pipes appeared to be in the early stages of emergence so I headed for cover knowing it would not be the last I would see of this intriguing plant.

The next day I sought the pipes again on the trail to Jakle's Lagoon at American Camp. The sun had returned, filtered through the dense lichen-encrusted Douglas firs and western red cedars that are the icons of this realm. I could hear young woodpeckers taking drumming lessons on the old, scarred trees and flycatchers and thrushes were still calling out their territories although, I suspected, beginning to feel the urge to head south now that their offspring had fledged.


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As I walked into the woods I found pipes almost immediately along the margins of the trail. At English Camp, they had settled in the leafy duff; here many of the pipes had emerged through lush cushions of green and chartreuse moss. In both places they needed the shade from the forest canopy to thrive.

In spite of its rather unorthodox appearance, Indian pipe is an herbaceous perennial plant from the family Ericaceae which includes blueberries, cranberries, heathers, and rhododendrons. It is native to temperate forest zones in Japan, China, and the Himalayas, and in Central America and northern South America. The plant is common in appropriate habitats throughout North American including the San Juan Islands.

Indian pipe is not a fungus as some folks presume at first glance, but there is a vital connection to that world. Indian pipe lacks the green pigment called chlorophyll that is necessary for photosynthesis – thus its white coloration. Rather than producing its own food, the plants' roots have formed a relationship with certain mycorrhizal fungi in the soil that in turn obtain food from live roots of green plants such as coniferous trees. In the islands, the pipes are often seen in proximity to Douglas firs.

Indian pipe does need to be pollinated, though, and as I examined one plant a robust black and orange bumblebee scrambled about its flower head possibly fulfilling just that task. Skipper butterflies may also be pollinators of Indian pipe. Once the seeds have been produced, the plant blackens and falls away. The same thing would happen if the pipe were picked.

I saw hundreds of Indian pipes in the woods; their fragile white stalks were no more than four to ten inches tall. The stems had scales rather than leaves and the flower heads were nodding as they emerged through the rich biomass on the forest floor.

Ghost plant, corpse plant, ice plant, peace pipe, flower fungus. Monotropa uniflora has many common names some of which date back to Native American folklore from tribes such as the Cherokee. One story asserts that the plants take root where the ashes of peace pipes had been strewn. Some tribes used the sap for medicinal purposes including treating eye infections.


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Most likely, the name comes from the form of the plant whose single bell-shaped flower curves on the scaled stalk producing a shape reminiscent of a peace pipe. The Latin name, Monotropa uniflora, means "once-turned, single flower" which refers to the fact that each flower initially nods forward and only upturns after pollination.

Early naturalists had their own interpretation of the plant's name, its biological processes, and its purpose. I like to refer to the works of scientific historian and nature writer Nelje Blanchan (1865 – 1918) who wrote persuasively on both birds and plants.

In Wild Flowers Worth Knowing she penned these colorful, if harsh, words about Monotropa uniflora: "Colorless in every part, waxy, cold, and clammy, Indian pipes rise like a company of wraiths in the dim forest that suits them well. Ghoulish parasites, uncanny saprophytes, for their matted roots prey either on the juices of living plants or on the decaying matter of dead ones, how weirdly beautiful and decorative they are!" I like early botanist Leslie Haskin's description best: "A drooping flower molded from pure white wax..."

Whatever the historic reference, or the antiquated attitude, today Indian pipe surely represents a unique biological form in our forests - and once seen, in our minds. One might expect the snow-white flower to stand out in the drab environment of our late-summer woodlands but, to the contrary, it appears unassuming along the trail.

When found, it may evoke puzzlement or even awe. It has been called a white apparition and a ghostly presence in the darkened woods. I regard Indian pipe with fascination for its symbiotic relationship with fungi and conifers. And, I think it is beautiful.

I returned to Jakle's Woods several times to check on Indian pipes and what was growing in their midst. The early bloomers - Calypso, white fawn lilies, woodland starflower, and twinflower - were gone for another year. Spotted and striped coralroots were going to seed, as well, with only remnants of their scarlet splendor visible in the understory.


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I found rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), one of the last orchids of the season, unfolding its white-etched, evergreen leaves next to the pipes. I searched for rein-orchids and was not sure if I was too late for their bloom or too early. A bit early, I surmised.

Then, I spotted our native dewberry (Rubus ursinus) in fruit and knew the sweet berries would not last long. All along the way, families of wrens incessantly reacted to my presence with their buzzy chatter.


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Once out of the forest and into the sunlight of Finlayson Ridge I spied the last blooming harvest lilies in the tall grass and watched slender dragonflies darting and diving overhead for insects to fuel their high-strung systems. Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) was finally in bloom and pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) seemed to be waiting for newly emerging woodland skipper butterflies to arrive.

I heard juvenile white-crowned sparrows chipping from the thickets, but there was a fainter chip nearby, as well. With patience, I found the source of the anxious call; it appeared to be a savannah sparrow chick nestled in a recess of wind-swept grass by the side of the trail. As I drew closer, I could see that it was still half covered by the vegetation that had likely been its home since hatching some time ago. It seemed vulnerable so close to the hiker's boot. I walked quietly past the spot trying not to disturb this new life feathered in shades of sepia to mimic the grass. I assumed its parents were nearby waiting for me to move on.


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I continued to scan the landscape for wildflowers. There was a favorite of mine: a tall spike of great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) with hairy leaves and buttery yellow blossoms. Then, finally, what I was really looking for: hooded lady's tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana). Its dense green stalk was resplendent with several rows of minute creamy hooded blooms. It was a pristine presence in the scruffy grass. I have written before of how botanist Leslie Haskins described the architecture of this orchid as a "spiral staircase for the bees..." and so it seemed on this summer day.

Thus, my fascinations with Indian pipe lead to several walks in the woods and along the margins of the grasslands. While we divide our year into four seasons, the spring and summer plant succession offers many phases of wildflowers, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and such to ponder and to enjoy. Each new plant that blooms and then bears fruit brings its own rewards to other species: the busy bees foraging in flower heads; the tall grass hiding the nestling sparrows; the fruits of salal and dewberry feeding the quail; the tall spires of mullein acting as perch sites for birds; and the flood of insects in the lush vegetation nourishing hordes of dragonflies and damsels. It is a grand scheme, this web of life.


About Susan Vernon

Susan Vernon is a former executive director of The Whale Museum, co-founder of the San Juan Nature Institute, and author of Rainshadow World – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands.

SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK / Indian Pipe. Text and photographs copyright 2011 by Susan Vernon. All rights reserved. No part of this column may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of the author.

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Last modified onMonday, 02 May 2016 15:26