Saturday, August 29, 2009

When is a Fungus Not a Fungus?

When it’s Indian Pipe.

My first conversation about this blog after ‘announcing’ it took place, appropriately, not in cyberspace but on a trail in the Cricket Hill woods, with neighbor C. who, commenting on the fungus photos, said that Indian Pipe was not really a fungus at all, and suggested looking it up on Wikipedia, which I did.

Reminding me of Mel Brooks’ 1000 year old man’s assessment of the nectarine (“what a fruit!), let me just say, what a flower! Lifting directly from Wikipedia (accessed 8/28/2009 at

Monotropa uniflora, also known as the Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe, or Corpse Plant is a herbaceous perennial plant … native to temperate regions of Asia, North America and northern South America … generally scarce or rare in occurrence. Unlike most plants, it is white and does not contain chlorophyll. Instead of generating energy from sunlight, it is parasitic, more specifically a myco-heterotroph. Its hosts are certain fungi that are mycorrhizal with trees, meaning it ultimately gets its energy from photosynthetic trees. Since it is not dependent on sunlight to grow, it can grow in very dark environments as in the understory of dense forest. The complex relationship that allows this plant to grow also makes propagation difficult.”

Indian Pipe with Russulaceae, above, and more Russulaceae in same area, below.

OK, but that “complex relationship” is very cool – it actually derives sustenance through fungi of the family Russulaceae, which in turn are feeding on nearby trees. “Indian pipe is not parasitic upon nearby trees as are some other achlorophyllous plants (e.g., beechdrops), but rather fulfills its nutritional needs through the services of an intermediary, a mycorrhizal fungus."
"The fungus forms a connection with both Indian pipe and with nearby trees and transfers some of the photosynthate it derives from the tree roots to the Indian pipe. Experiments using radioactive isotopes of carbon and phosphorus injected into trees have shown that the marked carbon and phosphorus are taken up by the Indian pipe, thus documenting that it is, indeed, transferred by the fungus.” (Carol Gracie, “Indian Pipe, Summer Ghost of the Forest,” on the Web site of the Bedford Audubon Society, accessed 8/29/09 at

If anyone knows the species of any of the Russulaceae pictured in this post, please comment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was an extraordinarily good year for Indian Pipes (and other fungi) on Cape Cod this summer. (Wet, wet and wet, followed by occasional warm?) I made several people go take pictures of the Indian Pipes because they are so strikingly pale. Thanks for including all this additional info--who knew?