A small, fleshy perennial plant lacking chlorophyll. It can be misidentified as a mushroom. Stem and flower color ranges from yellow to pink, red, orange, or brown or some combination of these. Summer-blooming plants tend to be yellowish, and those blooming in fall tend to be more pinkish or reddish. Rarely, they exhibit odd color patterns, such as red or white spirals like a candy cane, or red stems with yellow flowers. Flowers usually several, in a nodding raceme at the top of the stem. Blooms June-October. Leaves alternate, up to ½ inch long, stalkless, often hairy or fuzzy, clasping the stem. Fruit a dry capsule up to ¼ inch long. During fruiting, the previously nodding stem straightens, becoming erect.
Similar species: Indian pipe (M. uniflora) has a single flower per stem and is usually whitish, sometimes pinkish.