The time is drawing nigh.
I started researching herbal remedies when my children were young, but when one of them kept getting more and more ill, I really dug my heels into the research.
I read a lot of books on the subject of herbs and pulled up what I could on the young Internet. I eventually, at the encouragement of family and friends, enrolled in a Master Herbalist class through a college. Boy, was there a ton more to learn! Books, and books and more books…
Some herbs are common backyard “weeds,” but others are a lot more obscure.
While my husband was walking through the woods one day last year, he happened across an unlikely sight. Something reportedly “rare” and “hard to find” for most of the country. It spends most of its life underground and only blooms for about one week per year, and only then under specific conditions. Sometime between early summer to early fall, when the air is warm after a rain, they stretch toward the sky with their ghostly presence.
Ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora L.), also called Indian pipe, Corpse plant, Ice plant, Death plant, Ghost flower, and Bird’s nest, is a perennial woodland flower in the Ericaceae family (which includes blueberries); however, recent evidence suggests they should be regarded separately from this category. The lack of chlorophyll causes its translucent ghostly white-to-pale pinkish color. Rare species may showcase a dark red tinge. The stems can stretch up from two to 12 inches high. The singular bell-shaped flower heads have very little to no smell, and the plant can bruise easily or melt when touched.
This interesting plant has an unusual parasitic relationship with its tree host. Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month for October 2002 explains this relationship very well. Inside the leaves of the tree, “the radioactive carbon dioxide is photosynthesized into radioactive sucrose, which is transported to the roots of the tree. The mycorrhizal fungus takes the radioactive sucrose and transforms it into radioactive trehalose or sugar alcohols, which are transported to the rest of the fungal mycelium. (In return the fungus aids the tree in absorption of water and essential minerals, especially phosphorous, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) The Monotropa (ghost pipe) absorbs the sugars from the fungus by “fooling” the fungus into thinking it’s forming a mycorrhizal relationship – but, in fact, the Monotropa is really parasitizing the fungus! Thus, the radiolabeled carbohydrates pass from the tree to Monotropa via their common mycorrhizal partner, in what is termed a source-sink relationship. In other words, the sugars flow from where they are made to where they are being used. Thus, this is a three-way relationship between a photosynthetic tree, a mycorrhizal fungus, and a parasitic plant!”
In other words, even though the ghost pipe is not directly connected to the tree roots, but is instead connected to the fungus on the tree roots, it feeds off of the sugars from the tree and mycorrhizal fungi, primarily Russula fungi, as opposed to receiving its nutrients via photosynthesis of sunlight. Ghost pipe could not survive without this host relationship, which is one reason it is very difficult to cultivate. Since they are not dependent on sunlight, ghost pipes can live in dark or shaded areas of the forest and it likes its feet wet.
This unusual flower is very difficult if not impossible to cultivate. Seeds for sale, if real to begin with, are most often a waste of money. The circumstances under which ghost pipe grows is complex. A research lab, using complicated methods, was able to germinate a root cluster after about a year under specific conditions in the lab. If you are able to cultivate any, that’s great! Please share with others how you did it.
Don’t confuse ghost pipe, Monotropa uniflora, with pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys. Pinesap is a ghost pipe look alike; although, unlike ghost pipe’s single flower head, pinesap produces several flowers clustered close together which may appear as a single flower head and can have colors from creamy white or yellow to shades of red.
Emily Dickinson’s first book of poetry pictured ghost pipe as its cover photo. She referred to ghost pipe as “the preferred flower of life.”
In the past, ghost pipe has been used for conditions such as convulsions and epilepsies, eye infections, chlorea, toothache, sores that wouldn’t heal, menstrual cramps, stress or anxiety, migraines, nerve pain, bunions and warts, colds, severe mental and emotional pain due to PTSD or panic attacks, and for general pain.
Ghost pipe is an antinociceptive and works as a sedative; which means, it ele- vates pain thresholds or tolerance levels by reducing sensitivity. Some of the compounds found in ghost pipe are considered toxic in large doses.
West Virginia is one of only five states where ghost pipe is considered “secure” with an S5 subnational conservation status rating. These plants are rare and should be left to grow; however, if there is a need for some, only a few, about three or four, can go a long way. Never harvest more than 10% of a patch and none at all if the colony is less than 20 flowers; give the area a few more years to populate before trying again.
You cannot harvest ghost pipe like you can most other herbs and you must go prepared. These tender plants should be tinctured immediately while in the field.
Jar with clean water
Jar with enough 100-proof vodka to cover three or four ghost pipe stems
A pair of tweezers
Once this elusive plant is discovered, clip the tops off (roots are not needed but may produce a slightly stronger tincture if included). Choose stems that have a flower head bent over, still facing the ground. If they are pointing up, it is too late to harvest them as they have already been pollinated and will start to dissolve quickly.
Use tweezers to carefully dip each stem/flower head into the clean water to lightly rinse off dirt, place on a paper towel to remove the excess water, then quickly drop it into the vodka so that it is fully covered. If needed, the stems may be cut into smaller pieces to stay submerged in the alcohol and flower heads may need a little shaking, with the tweezers, to remove air pockets which may cause them to float.
Allow the flowers to marinate in the menstruum for several weeks, gently shaking the jar daily to ensure each piece is covered by the alcohol. The liquid will turn a beautiful hue of violet to dark purple. After a few weeks, the tincture may be strained and decanted, or the ghost pipes may be left in it until finished off.
Ghost pipe is not to be used for every day common pains or while nursing or pregnant.