Does anyone know an Anishinaabemowin name for ghost pipe? Or an indigenous owned site that tells its story? 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. The title name refers to its being shaped like a ceremonial pipe. I am not sure what the species status of Indian-pipe is around Haliburton, Ontario now. Decades ago it was fairly common here.

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.

Indian Pipe - Monotropa Uniflora
Indian Pipe – Monotropa Uniflora

Edible Uses of Indian-Pipe

If you search “is Indian 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.

Technically this bland tasting and fragile plant could be eaten raw, roasted, or boiled. It is mildly toxic due to several glycosides (e.g. andromedotoxin). And as for the fragileness, they may decompose when touched. They melt away if rubbed. In most places this plant is also too rare for harvesting to be considered ethical.

Medicinal Uses of Indian-Pipe

Indian pipe is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Nervous

Medicinal tags include 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.

Alternative Uses of Ghost Plant

It may surprise you that bumblebees will visit the flowers! I would put the Attracts Bees tag on this post, but…

Growing Ghost Pipe

Indian Pipe - Monotropa Uniflora
Indian Pipe – Monotropa Uniflora

While this plant isn’t a fungi, 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? I suppose if they continue to not come up, I’ll know that event was devastating. I’ll update!

While you could try to collect the seeds and a little soil from the 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

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. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.

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.

REFERENCES

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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