In 2013 I decided I was going to be a mushroom hunter and identify all the fungi that I could find. I’m lucky enough to have access to barely touched, off trail properties in the Catskill region so that summer, just about every other weekend, I explored deciduous forests along with swamp woodlands. I had my trusty camera, my fungi identification book, and went to work. Yes! I was on a physical and mental adventure. I took hundreds of photos and collected specimens here and there. After all of that, I sat down to start the identification process and thought “OH…MY…GOSH” this is going to be impossible… I was way over my head and suffering from a classic case of imagination gone wild.
Stepping out of my fantastical world of fungi identification I recognized that mycology (the study of fungi), is a lifetime of study of dedication and determination not one summer of weekend explorations. I chuckled to myself and realized well, maybe I will not identify all the fungi I come across but I definitely will continue to take photos because the variety of shapes and colors in fungi are truly amazing. In my opinion with the right lighting fungi are a photographers’ dream.
While I backed out of identifying all 100 or so fungi I came across, I did find something absolutely intriguing and now it’s one of my favorite organisms. Initially when I found them, they looked like white hooks bent into the ground and from first glance I thought they were another type of fungus (see comparison photos above). But when I looked closer I found that it was a strange, intriguing, white semi-translucent waxy body with a curled under (hook-like) white flower.
What in the world was this? Along with a picture I took a small sample and later found out that it was a perennial flower (not a fungus) called Monotropa uniflora (M.uniflora). Some of you may think that’s impossible all plants have some type of leaves with chlorophyll, and all plants perform photosynthesis. Well surprise! This one does not and come to find out there are many plants that cannot produce their own food using sunlight. Of course there’s never a simple explanation…in the case of M. uniflora it is considered to be a Mycoheterotroph.
So how does this plant get its nutrients? Well it’s in a special and specific relationship with fungi and trees. Interestingly enough the nutrient sharing relationship between the fungi (specifically the Russelacea family) and its tree partner is a mutual one. But it is the sneaky Monotropa uniflora that tricks the mycorrhiza (fungus symbiotic relationship with plant roots) and absorbs the nutrients that the two partners work hard to obtain. Yes, M. uniflora is an impressive impostor and it would not be able to survive without obtaining nutrients from the mycorrhizae, making this organism parasitic. Since Monotropa uniflora has a specific relationship with the Russelacea family, it can be challenging to come across. The environmental growth factors have to be just right for this plant to succeed. So not only does the plant have a unique look it also has a very fascinating life history, which made me even more excited that I came across it. The more I learned about my special forest find the more I appreciated it.
M. uniflora also comes with a few unique common names such as Indian pipe, Corpse flower and Ghost flower. All three of these names have their own special meaning behind them. If you look at the images I provided you can imagine why it’s occasionally called Ghost flower. It’s possible that the name derived from its ghostly white appearance which makes it stand out in the dark environment of the forest floor. The alternate name Corpse flower, more than likely came from its dark brown to black appearance once its blooming period ended. Take it from me when you see the end stages of Monotropa uniflora, you would be shocked to see how much it actually does resemble a decayed corpse. Last but not least the name Indian pipe, which is the most commonly used name, is derived from its versatile medicinal uses among Native Americans. Native Americans have extensive knowledge of a variety of plants and M. uniflora is one of them. It’s documented that a few typical uses are for general aches and pains, the treatment of warts as well as inflammation and the roots were used as a tea to calm convulsions. But please be warned without extensive research and specific preparation, this plant (and most plants) can be toxic! So beware.
In reference to the taxonomic classification of this unique plant it is in the Monotropoideae subfamily of Ericacea. In other words, M. uniflora is a relative of… the blueberry. Yup! the typical blueberry that you can find in pies and muffins.
In the end I’m glad I imagined myself as a mycologist for a summer; the result was a unique discovery of this beautiful and unique plant – and that’s the nice thing about flora, there are always surprises.
All Images, Audio & Artwork © 2018 N.Fontaine