Ghost Pipe – Monotropa Uniflora: Edible & Medicinal Uses of That’s Not a Mushroom of Wild Plants

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Ghost pipes are an herb most will mistake for a mushroom. This pale wildflower has forgone photosynthesis and can often be found in the darkest woods. It’s one of the many edible and medicinal plants that should probably be left alone due to being rarer and in this case, especially hard to propagate.

There are many names for it, including corpse plant and fairy smoke. In Haliburton Flora it’s called Indian pipe, in reference to its being shaped like a ceremonial pipe. I am not sure what the species status is around Haliburton, Ontario now. Decades ago it was fairly common here. It seems to depend on the year. We have the rarer yellow and pink tinted pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys) here too.

Despite the Latin name hinting at being in the family monotropaceae, the whole lot of monotropaceae are now a subfamily of the ericaceae family. Also known as the heath family. That makes it a close relative of blueberries, cranberries, etc. All the monotropa subfamily are parasitic plants, most getting their energy through fungal hosts. The fungal hosts, apparently russula and lactarius species in this case, get their sugar/energy from trees. The trees, of course, from the sun in ways you learned about in grade school. A photosynthetic tree, a web of mycorrhizal fungus, to a parasitic plant. There are thousands of plant species that are like this. And there is a vast web of life under the soil that we are only beginning to understand.

Ghost Pipe - Monotropa Uniflora
Ghost Pipe – Monotropa Uniflora

Edible Uses of Ghost Pipe

If you search “is ghost pipe edible?” you’ll find site after site that are a copy/paste of one another claiming it’s sort of edible and tastes like asparagus. Literally there is an exact duplicate sentence used on every site I saw. There’s also the exact opposite, fear mongering content that makes nibbling one stalk sound deadly.

Technically, this bland tasting and fragile plant could be eaten raw, roasted, or boiled in small amounts. It is mildly toxic due to several glycosides (e.g. andromedotoxin). I’m not clear on how much is too much. It can be especially dangerous if you have any cardiovascular issues. It’s definitely not for a beginner forager and brings to mind other “iffy” “edibles” like Jack-in-the-Pulpit or wintergreen.

And as for the fragileness, they may decompose when touched. They melt away if rubbed. In many places this plant is also too rare for harvesting to be considered ethical.

Medicinal Uses of Ghost Pipe

Ghost pipe is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Nervous

Medicinal tags include Analgesic, Antispasmodic, Nervine and Sedative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes as an antispasmodic for nervous conditions with spasms and convulsions, lending it the nicknames “convulsion-root” and “fit plant”. Uses have not been limited to that, but the plant isn’t used much anymore due to its at risk species status in many areas.

For those who have large amounts on their property, I found an herbalist from the American Herbalists Guild describing their practice with ghost plant/Indian pipe and how they maintain the patch.

Alternative Uses of Ghost Plant

It may surprise you that bumblebees will visit the flowers!

Growing Monotropa Uniflora

Ghost Pipe - Monotropa Uniflora
Ghost Pipe – Monotropa Uniflora

While this plant isn’t a fungus, it needs specific types of fungi to grow. So you can’t plop a seed in the ground anywhere and expect results. They are also ephemeral and want to come up after an extended dry period followed by rain. In those conditions they will come up and be full grown within a couple days! I have a huge patch, but it didn’t even show up in 2020. Was it the lack of that dry-to-rain? Was it the tree that fell? An old spruce tree twisted itself to death in a windstorm and I wonder if that was the main tree for the fungi and the ghost pipe?

It wasn’t until summer 2021 that my ghost pipe patch began to re-emerge. Only a few pipes came up, but we seem to be recovering from whatever happened.

While you could try to collect the seeds and a little soil from the same area, plant it in the dark woods perhaps near some beech, oak or pine, and hope for the best, it’s unlikely to work. Since propagation is hard, I treat my patch as sacred like the pipes they are shaped as. And even that might have not been enough. :`(

Similar plants may have their seeds dispersed by crickets. Perhaps something similar is happening in our woods. As it stands, the wind is given the credit for seed dispersal.

WARNINGS

If you have any cardiovascular issues, it’s probably best to skip taste testing this wild plant out of an abundance of caution.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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REFERENCES

https://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/sites/default/files/donahue_sean_-_ghost_pipe-_a_little_known_nervine.pdf

wiki/Monotropa_uniflora

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

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