Indian Pipe: Not a Fungus

I’d said a couple places that I was planning on writing a blog post about Indian Pipe, the bizarre non-photosynthetic plant that a lot of people (understandably) mistake for an odd-looking fungus. Last week I found that a lot of it had sprouted along a particular trail near here, but I didn’t have my camera with me. This week I finally went back, camera in hand, to get some photos for the blog, only to find that it had all mysteriously vanished. Either it’s a much more ephemeral plant than I’d realized, or something had eaten it all, or… I don’t know. Anyway, here is a photo of Indian Pipe not taken by me.

Photo by Jesse Taylor (Wikimedia Commons)

I try hard not to always be that annoying person who corrects people when they get their natural history facts mixed up, but in this case, the truth about Indian Pipe is so much more interesting than the misconception! Even though it’s white and not much bigger than a big toadstool, this is, in fact, a plant. It has the structure of a plant, with roots, a stem, and flowers. Check it out – if you look closely you can see stamens and a pistil, just like any other flowering plant has.

Photo by Staben (Wikimedia Commons)

However, Indian Pipe is not photosynthetic, which is why it’s not green. Instead of manufacturing its own food from sunlight, it cheats. The roots of many trees in the forest have symbiotic associations with fungi called mycorrhizae that help them absorb nutrients. Indian Pipe taps into those fungi and diverts some of the trees’ nutrients to itself.

Do you have Indian Pipe or any other parasitic plants where you live?

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4 thoughts on “Indian Pipe: Not a Fungus”

  1. Why yes I do! It is the “cover photo” for my website this month. If you get a chance, when they first start to bloom, go out just at dusk, you will find the bumblebees crawling all over them. I suspect that is their pollination strategy.

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