Ghost Flower

Life & Legends
of the Ghost Flower
aka Dutchman's Pipe
aka Indian Pipe
aka Corpse Plant
aka Fairy Smoke


There is a native wildflower I am not likely ever to have in my garden, though I would welcome the opportunity to attempt it someday, & I think I might be able to duplicate its highly specific requirements even though smarter gardeners than I have failed. Since the photos at this website are of flowers & shrubs & trees Granny Artemis & I actually possess, & Monotropa uniflora is simply not cultivated for gardens, I'm illustrating this page instead with a book from my personal library. The binding is for a 1901 collection of fantasy & ghost stories, the decorative cloth depicting the very ghost flower I have in mind for the present essay.

Monotropa uniflora is a tiny terribly fragile plant, called Dutchman's Pipe or sometimes Indian Pipe, though my favorite name of many that it possesses is Ghost Flower. It is completely devoid of chlorophyll & grows in the deepest darkest shade of damp forest floors in temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere, including here in the Pacific Northwest. It is found in temperate zones of North America, Japan, the Himalayas, & Europe.

The strangeness of the flower has lent it to legendry. Some thought it looked like a corpse's knotted fist reaching out of a grave, though given its size, it would have to be the fist of an elf or fetus. The little pallid blossoms had a reputation for being clammy to the touch. If prodded in any manner they produce a gelatinous ooze, showing instant bruising, then swiftly turn black, hence that other common name, Corpse Plant.

Early in the 19th Century, New England regionalist writer Alice Morse Earle said, "It is the weirdest flower that grows, so palpably ghastly that we feel almost a cheerful satisfaction in the perfection of its performance & our own responsive thrill, just as we do in a good ghost story." And ghost stories it indeed inspired, as at the hands of of Jane Pentzer Myers' in that rare collection Stories of Enchantment; or,The Ghost Flower.

I could easily put together a collection of creepy Victorian & Edwardian tales about flowers. Stories of killer-plants, haunted apple trees, & so on, were a commonplace in Victorian fiction onward. "The Giant Wisteria" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman from a Victorian issue of New England Magazine regards a huge weird house plant fertilized by a most horrifying means. Alice Brown's World War I tale "The Empire of Death" first published in 1917 takes place in an otherworldly fruit grove through which a German & an American soldier labor as in a dream.

Alice Brown was typical of several New England regionalists who regularly used flowers & trees in mystical contexts to tell stunning short stories that frequently erupted into outright ghostliness, though at the hands of someone like Sarah Orne Jewett, her use of nature mysticism in such tales as "Marsh Rosemary" (1886) remained rational. Besides regional tales of humanity, ghosts, & plantlife typical especially of New England writers, just about everyone today has seen Victorian books about flower-fairies -- even Louisa May Alcott wrote one such volume. But the darker tales of frightful flowers are less commonly revived.

Dumb FoxgloveNot horrifying but still eerie is a ghost story by Connecticutt regionalist Annie Trumbull Slosson, the title tale from Dumb Foxfglove & Other Stories, a beautiful book which shows a "closed gentian" blue on green cloth. I've included an image of that binding to illustrate this page, since I was already committed to illustrating this page from my library rather than from the garden. In the title story, the Dumb Foxglove symbolized a crippled child whose ghost persisted in her aunt's house. She had been called a dumb foxglove because like the flower she never completely "opened" but was a shrivelled thing who could not fully open her hands, just as a closed gentian never fully opens its buds. Yet she was regarded a holy child with her bent neck & folded hands giving her a perpetual attitude of prayer. The folklore around this plant is as rich as around Indian Pipe. This gentian is also known as Sampson's Snakeroot because believed to ward off serpents or negate their venom, as Nehushta the Serpent-goddess upraised by Moses warded off fiery serpents & was worshipped in the very Temple well into the time of Kings. The closed gentian is still regarded, like a four-leaf clover, as a charm against all sorts of ill luck.

But to return to the weird little Ghost Flower: Because it seems to be fashioned from snow or carved from ice, & oozes (or "melts") if picked or bruised, it is sometimes called the American Ice Plant, or the Wax Plant, for it is sometimes more pleasant to think of it as a melting candle instead of an oozy corpse. As its root was traditionally used medicinally to settle nerves or treat eye conditions, it has also been called Eyebright or Convulsion Weed or Fit Root. It has never been well studied to assess actual medicinal benefit, but it does contain methyl salicylate which ought to make it as useful as asprin, & belief in its curative properties has considerably stressed the wild populations in Europe & New England.

Its needs in the garden are so difficult to meet, I've never heard of it being done intentionally with success, but it hasn't been very many years that its actual needs were particularly well known. I have heard of gardeners discovering this plant erupting in their yard of its own accord, & anyone so lucky should make every effort to preserve them in situ as the little clump will likely die if moved or in any manner disrupted.

The only way to obtain this plant is to take one from the wild, & that cannot always be done legally. Their status varies by region or country. In some places they are banned only from sale but can be legally collected. Since the likelihood of their surviving transplant is extremely slight, collectors are unfortunately after the roots for the herb trade, not for garden cultivation. In areas where they are endangered they completely protected & must never be collected. If there is a legal collector who could provide me with a large living root still packed in a goodly amount of the soil it was found in, I would attempt it in my shade gardens. Do get in touch if you want to help me out with this!

It was formerly categorized as a "saprophyte," indicating a plant that obtains its nutrients from decaying matter without recourse to photosynthesis, but saprophyte is an obsolete term & the Ghost Flower actually obtains its nutrients from mycorrhizal fungus. The correct terms would be "epiparasite" or "mycoheterophyte," as such plants form a union with another parasitic plant (the fungi) to obtain its nutrients. Rather than attaching to decaying matter, the Ghost Flower attaches to filaments of living fungus which in turn attach to the living roots of trees.

Beeches are their preferred companions in many regions, elsewhere under oaks or other deciduous trees; but along the Northwest coast they are found in upland not-too-wet hemlock & cedar forests in conditions also good for bunchberries & huckleberries, which also require higher than average amounts of beneficial fungus to thrive, although the Ghost Flowers seem to prefer rather droughtier spots than bunchberries, without much other plantlife crowding them. They are relatively common in coastal forests except in California where it is endangered.

The beneficial funguses should be regarded as symbiotic rather than parasitic since they help trees & shrubs produce essential sugars, & most plants could not live without this assistance, while some, like huckleberries, need a great deal of mycorrhizal fungus to thrive. Whether the Dutchman's Pipe assists either the fungus or the tree roots in some manner comparable to mycorrhizal fungus's assisting of trees & shrubs, or whether it is an outright parasite, is not really known, but it may be transferring beneficial sulfurs to the host.

I have beech tree shaded gardens & if I could ever lay hands on a big sturdy root of the Ghost Flower, I would plant it in a leaf & needle enriched loamy hole close up to a beech tree, & put a passel of beneficial fungus starter tablets in the hole with the Ghost Flower's rootball. The root is extremely dense & even if it is doomed to die, it takes a couple of years; so it would be my hope that the root would prove tough enough that the fungus would hook it up to the beech tree roots soon enough that it would thrive. Though I know of nobody who has done this, the only experimental attempts I've read of people attempting to grow it occurred before the fungal attachment was understood, & people were failing to establish it in leaf rubble.

In the wild, the bloom is white for only one week at the height of summer, but not until there has been a heavy rainfall). They have bowed heads & really do look like pipes, hence the name "Dutchman's Pipes" which alludes less to Dutchmen than to the sorts of mountain gnomes encountered in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," & lending it yet another common name, the Fairies' Smoke. The shortlived flowered soon turn their bowed heads upward & the stem & blossom turns coal-black, looking like a little patch of spent matchsticks.

Though they are common in our coastal forests, it is possible for hikers to go many years never noticing them, for they are so small, so ephemeral, & will sometimes skip a year of blooming in excessively dry-summer years. Even if spotted, they are easily dismissed by the mind's filter that may not be interested in funguses, which despite not being funguses, a dismissive attitude toward mushrooms can train the eye to automatically scan past this woodland ephemeral's fungus-like nodding heads. The strain of M. uniflora seen in the Cascades is very often pinkish rather than pallid white, frankly prettier than on the east coast, & a little less weird for being tinted either pink or the palest straw-yellow. East coast ghost flowers are truly ghostly in the deathly pale fleshiness.

The ghostly flower does not need leaves since it does not manufacture its nutrients by capturing sunlight; in consequence its leaves have devolved into fleshy scales on the stem of the flower, & there are no leaves at all separate from the flower stalk. Yet as a diminuative member of the heath & wintergreen family, it does produce pollen & seeds. There are four species in the genus, all very similar. Another native is M. hypopithys, likewise called Dutchman's Pipe & looking quite similar, but elsetimes called Pinesap, & its pallid yellow flesh frequently ages to a transluscent pink. It is usually in the acidic soil under pine trees, where it can look like drops of sap on fallen needles. In Europe it is known as Yellow Bird's Nest, the knotted windings of the strange root presumedly resembling a bird's nest.

It resembles Allotropa virgata, another non-chlorphylled heath family flower easily mistaken for a fungus, sharing some of the same Northwest habitats as M. uniflora in the Cascades & upland coastal forests. It can be distinguished by the pink-striped lower stem, sometimes darkening to completely red at the base, & the flower head does not nod. They turn rust-brown when they go to seed, rather than black, & they're never quite as fleshy or macabre as Monotropa can be. Like Monotropa they have thick deep root systems but only small ephemeral flowers above ground, no leaves except the scale-like ones tiny along the flower stem. Allotropa has a very extensive root system when compared to Monotropa which has a very dense coral-like ball-root.

One other heath family non-chlorophyll plant seen in the same habitats is called Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea), a smaller head-nodding flower, but with sticky brown flower & stems, very briefly in their prime but persisting as dried seedheads for some while. Allotropa & Pterospora are likewise "ectomycorrhizae" obtaining all their nutrients by parasitizing beneficial fungus, in particular the fungus that is used by Pinaceae, Fagaceae, & Betulaceae to assist in the generation of their own sugarlike nutrients. Allotropa possibly prefers trees that are in the process of dying & old patches of it will vanish when the tree is well along in decay. The seeds of Monotropa & Allotropa are mere dust, broadly cast like spoors, increasing their fungus-like appearance & behavior. Attempts to germinate Allotropa spoors in suitable funguses in laboratory conditions have to date failed, but attempts with Monotropa have had limited success.


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