Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), also known as ghost plant or corpse plant due to its uniquely white color, is a herbaceous perennial plant native to temperate North America. These single-stalked plants often grow in clusters and can extend up to 12 inches high. Each waxy stem is covered in small scale-like leaves and has one white five-parted flower at the end. Flowering occurs between June and October, and indian pipes are a common sight throughout oak and pine forests on Cape Cod throughout the summer. When indian pipes first push up through the ground, the flower hangs in a downward position. However, as the plant and the flower mature, the flower turns to be oriented more perpendicularly to the stem.
Its white color is due to its lack of chlorophyll, the green pigment most plants use to photosynthesize. Indian pipes have evolved to be parasitic and so no longer have the need to generate energy directly from the sun. Specifically, it’s a mycotroph, meaning it parasitizes fungi. The root systems of indian pipes consist of a spiny root ball surrounded by a fungal mycorrhizae, a fungi symbiotic with trees. Mycorrhizae greatly expand the absorptive surface area of a tree’s root system to facilitate the tree’s uptake of nutrients. The tree in turn provides carbohydrates produced through photosynthesis to the mycorrhizae. The indian pipe is essentially able to tap into this system to obtain nutrients from the mycorrhizae. This lack of dependency on sunlight allows this plant to grow in very dark environments, such as the sunless understory of a dense forest.