Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

Ghost Flowers

Indian pipe plant
Indian Pipes (also called-Ghost Flower, Corpse Plant, Death Plant, and Fairy Smoke) grow deep in the forest. They are often found near old stumps or rotting logs.

Ghost plant
If you’ve ever seen them growing in the woods it’s easy to see where they got their common names. The white almost translucent look of the spindly nodding plant is eerie enough to conjure up the images of Ghosts or even Death. And the shape of the narrow stem with a nodding head does indeed resemble an Indian’s smoke pipe.

Corpse plant
Indian Pipes are typically white, although sometimes they have a pinkish cast to them. The plant’s strange white look is due to the lack of chlorophyll. In other words the plant doesn’t use the process of photosynthesis that most plants do.

Indian pipe plant grows in western nc
Some folks think Indian Pipes act as a sort of parasite feeding on the the nutrients that have all ready been digested by tree roots or nutrients from decaying plant matter in the form of rotting logs or stumps. While others say they actually feed on the nutrients from a specific type of fungi that populate tree roots.

Once the plant finishes it’s growing season the pipes turn completely black, almost looking like burnt matchsticks-another part of the plant that adds to it’s mystery or creepiness. If you pick an Indian Pipe it will soon turn black.

Ghost plants grow in appalachia

The nodding flowers of the plant amazingly raise their heads to the sky in a last hurrah of sorts to make sure their seeds are broadcast to ensure the next generation of Indian Pipes are born the following year.

There is much folklore surrounding the strange plant.

  • The plant was used in medicinal remedies ranging from curing colds and fevers to removing warts.
  • Interesting in relation to the alternate names of Corpse or Death plant-the plant was said to heal the broken heart of those mourning the loss of a loved one.
  • A Cherokee legend tells the story of Indian Pipes being created due to the selfishness of people, you can read it here.

I found the following about the Indian Pipe/Ghost Flower in a book from 1917-it was written and Published by Neltje Blanchan-Wild Flowers Worth Knowing. The author thought the plant was indeed evil:

“Among plants as among souls, there are all degrees of backsliders. The foxglove, which is guilty of only sly, petty larceny, wears not the equivalent of the striped suit and the shaved head; nor does the mistletoe, which steals crude food from the tree, but still digests it itself, and is therefore only a dingy yellowish green. Such plants, however, as the broom-rape, Pine Sap, beech-drops, the Indian Pipe, and the dodder–which marks the lowest stage of degradation of them all–appear among their race branded with the mark of crime as surely as was Cain. No wonder this degenerate hangs its head; no wonder it grows black with shame on being picked, as if its wickedness were only just then discovered! To think that a plant related on one side to many of the loveliest flowers in Nature’s garden–the azaleas, laurels, rhododendrons, and the bonny heather–and on the other side to the modest but no less charming wintergreen tribe, should have fallen from grace to such a depth! Its scientific name, meaning a flower once turned, describes it during only a part of its career. When the minute, innumerable seeds begin to form, it proudly raises its head erect, as if conscious that it had performed the one righteous act of its life.”

Although I’m not quite sure how plants could be considered backsliders-the quote sounded so old world Appalachia I had to share it with you.

Have you ever seen Indian Pipes? Do you think they’re creepy?

Tipper

This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig in June of 2010.

 

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26 Comments

  • Reply
    Lisa A DeBarr
    June 12, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    Monotropa uniflora
    Nothing “evil” about this unique plant.
    The elusive “Indian pipe” or “Ghost pipe”
    —an ephemeral, nonchlorophyll producing plant that draws energy/nutrition from the roots of surrounding trees capable of photosynthesis (often beech). This process occurs by way of the mycelium of adjacent fungal hosts (usually members of Russulaceae mushroom family) thus forming a truly unique, parasitic/mutualistic, symbiotic three-part relationship.
    Since not dependent on sunlight, they’re able to grow in dark environments, e.g., among undergrowth of dense woodland canopies.
    Usage: In tincture form, ghost pipes have been used as a nervine (for pain management) in western herbal medicine since the late 1800s; as well as in poultices, salves and ointments. According to recent research the medicinal benefits of its extract is yet unclear, with usage partly suspect as to its safety or actual physiological efficacy.
    Nonetheless, ghost pipes are beautiful, mysterious plants that cause quiet respectful awe when graced by their ethereal presence.

  • Reply
    David Hilton
    June 12, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    As strange as the Indian Pipe looks, I’ve been told it’s a close cousin to mountain laurel.

  • Reply
    peppergrass
    May 23, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I love this plant. Some people are researching it as powerful medicine to treat mental illnesses, panic attacks, chronic pain, PTSD, etc.

  • Reply
    quinn
    June 26, 2012 at 9:44 am

    I think Indian Pipe is beautiful – always have thought so, since I was a child. There’s lots of it growing in the woods around here.
    Tipper, that thing you wrote: “part the plant was said to heal the broken heart of those mourning the loss of a loved one”…could you tell more about that? I’d dearly love to know.

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    June 26, 2012 at 8:15 am

    I think they are pretty and creepy. They are very delicate looking, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before.

  • Reply
    Hallhaven.blogspot.com
    June 25, 2012 at 9:27 am

    These really are the coolest looking flowers! I’ve seen them in the woods a time or two.

  • Reply
    vicki lane
    June 24, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Terrific post, Tipper! We see them occasionally and, yes, I think they’re kinda creepy.

  • Reply
    Lise
    June 24, 2012 at 9:51 am

    I love Indian Pipes, they grow all over our property. When they show their clean white selves, they bring me such delight, I often laugh out loud when I come upon them. Hard for me to imagine they are backsliders, but I sure enjoyed learning more about them, thank you for the information:) I never knew they rose their heads to spread their seeds, I’ll have to watch for that now!

  • Reply
    Ken
    June 23, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Tipper,
    Thank you for the Music again. And
    The Pressley Girls are singing one
    of my favorites. I’ve got most all
    The Blind Pig Gang’s songs in my
    Favorites, but now we got music
    automatically again and this time
    with a volume button. Woopie!
    Don’t know much about those ghost
    flowers, but like you and being
    of the Baptist faith, I wouldn’t
    take nothing for my experiences
    in the old country Church…Ken

  • Reply
    John
    June 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    sure do like the playlist thank you very thank you
    John

  • Reply
    Sandy Carlson (USA)
    June 23, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    I so appreciate the work you do for your posts. These flowers are poetry sprung from the earth.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 23, 2012 at 5:46 pm

    Tipper–Me use a multisyllabic word? Methinks you must be in possession of some misinformation or else have me confused with some crusty curmudgeon given to contriving, conflation, and convolution of the English language.
    Actually I take great joy in employing a different and diverse vocabulary, because I am convinced that through so doing one can bring out the richness of both mountain talk and English in general.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    John
    June 23, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Not a plant I’m familiar with though we do have other parasitic plants like the broomrapes and toothwort that are similar. I’ve always been too inquisitive about such things to ever think about them being creepy.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 23, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    I’ve seen them here in Florida quite often, they do look like they should be poison to the touch and kind of creepy.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 23, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    I’ve seen them but endeavor not to touch them. They look a little slimy to me.
    Ms Blanchan’s description does have a distinctly religious turn to her words but I don’t think that is unusual for the time, 1917.

  • Reply
    Mamabug
    June 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    I love these pretty little flowers. I found some several years ago here in Florida; they love the damp, leaf littered ground and I found them growing under an old oak tree, next to the roots.

  • Reply
    Tipper
    June 23, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Don-I didn’t mean her words were Appalachian-I meant the thought she was trying to convey was totally Appalachian in a religious sense. I know you didn’t grow up in the same sort of fire and brimstone Baptist setting that I did-but those who did will most certainly understand what I meant. And as far as Ms. Blanchan’s use of words that seem pretentious and contrived-my goodness a lot of folks would say the Casada brothers sometimes use words like that too-and we all know you’re born and bred Appalachians : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia
    http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    June 23, 2012 at 11:08 am

    What a cool post! I guess I just like weird things…. and all the names for them really do fit!

  • Reply
    MadSnapper
    June 23, 2012 at 10:49 am

    not creepy to me. i love them and would love to see them growing and in all their stages. i prefer the Indian Pipe name and second the Ghost flower. i think they are lovely. thanks for the repost. love these flowers.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 23, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Tipper–Anyone who has spent as much time in the woods as I have hunting will have seen Indian pipe time and again. I wonder if it has any practical uses? Most plants do.
    For example, squaw root, which apparently lacks chlorophyll as well, is cherished by black bears. They will eat it like nobody’s business.
    Jim Casada
    http://www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    June 23, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Tipper, I know you like to reference Neltje Blanchan’s “Wild Flowers Worth Knowing” – but when you say her words sound Appalachian, I’ve got to call foul – I couldn’t disagree more strongly.
    Her words on most flower subjects strike me as pretentious and contrived – in other words, anything but Appalachian.
    Neltje Blanchan de Graff was born in Chicago, married a Doubleday, and lived in New York City.
    Okay – now you can call me provincial and I’ll say “thanks for the compliment” 😉
    By the way, I’ve seen an Indian Pipe or ten thousand, and think them lovely.

  • Reply
    Shirla
    June 23, 2012 at 9:55 am

    I have never seen Indian Pipes. Looking at the pictures, one can easily see how the plant got it’s many names. It also appears to have a pretty and delicate side if you look at it without associating it with corpse, death and ghost.

  • Reply
    Robin Naneix
    June 23, 2012 at 9:52 am

    My father who was part cherokee told me the pipes were a reminder not to be lazy. All cherokee people would get their firewood, tend their feileds, prepare their hunted meat and get their houses ready before winter. But one man was lazy and waited too late and the winter winds began to blow. Desperate he prayed to Wakonda to please give him more time. Wakonda replied that he would give him seven more days and then he would pick up his pipe and smoke it and the winter would begin again. And that is how we have seven days of indian summer so the lazy ones can hurry and get their tasks done. And the pipes remind us not to be lazy.

  • Reply
    Gorges Smythe
    June 23, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Having worked and hunted in the woods all my life, I’m quite familiar with them. Since my home is in the edge of the woods, they sometimes grow in my yard. There’s an old piece of lore that says that anywhere one grows, an Indian has had his fire and smoked his pipe. I realize that isn’t true, of course, since Indians wouldn’t bother to build fires on some of the steep slopes where I’ve seen the plants growing!

  • Reply
    B.ruth
    June 23, 2012 at 8:49 am

    Tipper,
    I happen to like Fairy Smoke..etc.
    I shore wish a Fairy would show up and tell me about that doggone Cymling…!!!
    The word was not in my J. E. Worcesters Dictionary of 1860 nor my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary of 1912…I have some older dictionaries but they are in the book abyss somewhere…LOL
    The Flora cestrica: of 1853..
    Says, it it a Southern word, and a deviation of the squash that looks like a cymbaline…also they are white, round and can also be simbeled….thus pattypan..??
    Simple Simon… met a pieman,
    going to the fair….was written circa 1744…
    My book on mysterious Nursery Rhymes…leaves me to think like there were a lot of simpletons during that time period..aliken to Simel and the Earl of Warwick..his peer he pretended to be…It must’ve been terrible to be a young inheritor of the thrones..per say and get impersonated so much…and knowing he was a little bit more simple than simple, would not have made a good king…
    Jim, I am so over this UK history lesson…No wonder I just made it past Canterberry Tales in History 101…LOL
    I think I’ll go smoke me a fairy pipe….JUST KIDDING….
    Since I’ve overcommented and since I think I commented on the last rendition of Fairy pipes…I will love to see what others comment about them…
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 23, 2012 at 8:49 am

    The description of the habits of the Indian Pipe remind me of parts of the society we live in today. They survive off others’ labors. Only they don’t live in the deep dark woods and don’t ever wither and die back. They are always right out in the open flashing their ill gotten bling.

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