Monotropa uniflora (Indian pipes)

This fascinating plant occurs throughout the Midwest and North America (except for the southwestern United States), and is often mistaken for a fungus. At our companion site, MushroomExpert.Com, we receive many "What's this mushroom?" e-mails that describe or depict Monotropa uniflora. But Indian pipes are not mushrooms; they are plants that lack chlorophyll, which accounts for their ghostly colors.

Until recently, botanists believed that Indian pipes were saprophytes, subsisting on dead or decaying organic material. Recent investigations, however, have revealed that Monotropa uniflora is actually parasitic on a fungus that is in a "mycorrhizal" relationship with a tree. The fungus and the tree are exchanging nutrients in a mutually beneficial relationship; the Indian pipes have duped the fungus into "believing" it is in a second mycorrhizal relationship—but in reality the fungus gets nothing out of the deal, and is being parasitized by Monotropa uniflora. Not just any fungus will do, however; Monotropa uniflora appears to have evolved this relationship only with species in the mushroom family Russulaceae (including Russula, Lactarius, and Lactifluus).

Indian pipes are easily recognized by comparison to photos (a strategy that doesn't often work in mushroom identification). The plant's parts bruise blackish upon handling, and it emits a clear, jelly-like substance when injured. Monotropa hypopithys, sometimes called "pinesap," is vaguely similar but generally red or deep pink; additionally it has several flowers on each stem.

Range of Dicentra cucullaria
midwestern range

Monotropa uniflora
plants grow in clusters . . .


Monotropa uniflora
. . . with one flower on each stem.


Monotropa uniflora
surfaces begin to blacken at maturity

Monotropa uniflora
flowers have 4–5 petals, surrounded by 2–4 sepals

Monotropa uniflora
Indian pipes appear in hardwood and conifer forests, in deep litter

References: GN Jones 1971, Bidartondo & Bruns 2001, RL Jones 2005, Voss & Reznicek 2012, Kurz 2014, Mohlenbrock 2014, Hilty 2020, USDA 2020.

Kuo, Michael & Melissa Kuo (December, 2020). Monotropa uniflora (Indian pipes). Retrieved from the midwestnaturalist.com website: www.midwestnaturalist.com/monotropa_uniflora.html

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