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Almost three years ago, I found these amazing looking things growing in the woods just off the edge of our backyard. My first impression was that they were the ghosts of roses past. As per my usual, I headed straight to Google, and discovered that I wasn’t too far off – while there are many common names for Monotropa uniflora, they include Ghost Flowers or Ghost Pipes. It’s also known as Indian Pipes, Death Plants, Ice Plants, and Fairy Smoke. It’s not particularly rare, but not exactly common either.
According to Wikipedia, it is –
a herbaceous perennial plant native to temperate regions of Udmurtiya in European Russia, Asia, North America and northern South America, but with large gaps between areas. It was formerly classified in the family Monotropaceae; however, it has now been included within the Ericaceae. It is 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. It is often associated with beech trees. The complex relationship that allows this plant to grow also makes propagation difficult.
Ghost flowers/Indian Pipes were the favorite flower of Emily Dickinson – in fact, Emily’s friend Mabel Todd (who was also her editor) gave her a painting of the flowers, to which Emily famously replied – “That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none.” That painting was then used as the cover of her book of poetry (published in 1890 after her death).
As for it’s uses, there aren’t really many. I’ve come across a few websites (for example, Gardening Know How) that say the Native Americans used to use it in medicine, most notably for eye infections. And while it’s technically edible (and part of the blueberry family, believe it or not!), it’s not recommended.
When I first took pictures back in 2015, I was using my old Olympus Digital camera with the automatic flash, since they like dank, dark places.
In 2016, I had my brand-spanking new Nikon COOLPIX P610 to take pictures (always on auto mode, and using both the built in macro and regular lens).
I also got some some shots towards the end of July, when they’d passed their prime, but still looked creepy cool.
I was wicked bummed last year, though – I checked all through the month of July 2017, in the half dozen places I’d spotted them in the previous two years, but nada. Fingers crossed I score some new shots this summer!
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