Indian pipe is a perennial wildflower that lacks chlorophyll and is therefore white (sometimes pinkish). It is sometimes misidentified as a mushroom. It usually grows in small clusters. The flowers arise singly on a white, scaly stem and are urn-shaped, nodding, with 4 or 5 petals and no sepals. The flowers are white, turning purple and later black. As the seeds ripen, the downturned flower gradually turns upright. Blooms August–October. Leaves are absent; they are replaced by scales on the floral stem.
Similar species: Indian pipe is distinguished from pinesap (its closest relative in Missouri) by its only bearing one flower per stalk. Indian pipe's species name, “uniflora,” means “one-flowered.”
Height: to 8 inches.
Scattered nearly statewide but nowhere common.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in humus-rich bottomland forests and moist to dry upland forests, mainly in oak-hickory forests. Unlike most plants, Indian pipe lacks chlorophyll, so it is white, not green. Belowground, its roots join with fungi that join with tree roots. This plant thus takes nourishment indirectly from the trees. Because of its complicated method of obtaining nourishment, this flower rarely survives transplanting, so take pictures, not plants, from the wild.
Indian pipe and its close relatives have sometimes been placed in their own family, but DNA studies have shown their close relationship to blueberries, cranberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, and others, and they are all now in the heath family, the Ericaceae.
Organisms like Indian pipe — also called ghost plant and corpse plant — strike us as bizarre and cause us to halt, kneel, and take a closer look. They fill us with wonder and pique our curiosity. They train us to keep looking for wonderful things.
The fungi associated with Indian pipes are in the family Russulaceae, a group that includes the brittlegills and milky caps. Like many other fungi, they join with tree roots, and both tree and fungus benefit: The fungus gets food from the tree while expanding the tree's absorption network.