Monotropa uniflora is a fascinating plant whose translucent, ghostly appearance has given rise to many colorful common names like Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe, Corpse Plant, and Ice Plant. It contains no chlorophyll and does not need sunlight, but satisfies its nutritional needs by a parasitic association with mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn derive their nutrition from the roots of trees. Monotropa uniflora is widespread throughout North America, but is uncommon throughout its range. Below is the typical appearance of a young colony that has just popped through the leaf litter.
Contrast this with another colony as it appears in late winter. It is easy to see why it might be difficult to associate these dead and dried plants below with those pictured above.
The dried stems and seed capsules of Indian Pipe are known to persist into the next growing season. But some colonies persist even longer than that. This is the second winter for the colony pictured above, which appeared and bloomed in October, 2013. Another colony in the same area was observed to persist for just over 2 years.
A surprising amount of anatomical structure is preserved in the dried plants. The photograph below shows the seed capsule, which splits into five parts when the fertilized plant matures, allowing the tiny seeds to spill out and disperse with the wind.
Several sections of the seed capsule pictured below have been lost, exposing most of the pistil (the female reproductive organ). Deep longitudinal furrows cover the surface of the ovary, and the round, bowel-shaped stigma can be seen at the top. The stigmas are especially prominent on the dried plants and can be seen from a distance at the top of the seed capsules. When a dried seed capsule is handled, the capsule sections easily break into fragments, but the pistil remains intact as a hard, tough, woody structure.
The tiny, scale-like leaves are still retained on the stems, as illustrated by the plant below. The stem is the real secret to the persistence of the plant. The stems are incredibly tough and flexible, nearly impossible to tear or break.
The contrast is remarkable between the tough and persistent winter plants and the soft, fleshy and delicate flowering stage. While many Indian Pipes are white, plants can be pink and even red-stemmed. The flowers nod downward until they are fertilized. Then they gradually rotate into an upright posture. In the first photo below, the flowers are still in the nodding stage. In the second photo, most flowers have assumed the upright position.
Indian Pipe is sometimes described as waxy, paraffin-like, and translucent, as illustrated below by these two back-lighted flowers. These two plants came up in mid November. In the Falls Lake area, the majority of Indian Pipe comes up in October.
Monotropa uniflora is a perennial plant in the Heath family, the Ericaceae, which is a family of mostly shrubs, including Blueberries and Rhododendrons. Each stalk bears a single flower, giving rise to the Latin species name of uniflora.