Species of Concern

Ghost Pipe

June 2024. If you venture out into the woods now in Central Virginia, you’ll find these lovely flowers in the family Ericaceae (heaths) nosing up from the leaf-meal.

In anticipation of the publication of my first full-length poetry collection, Species of Concern, I continue my focus on Eastern US native flora and fauna species that are “of concern” for one reason or another – habitat loss, climate change – or in some cases simply because I am fond of or interested in them!

For this month’s species of concern it was a tossup between Ghost Pipe and the Wood Thrush. Then I came across the US Forest Service entry, informing me that this was Emily Dickinson’s favorite plant. Ghost Pipe won hands down for June. Wood Thrush fans, tune in next month.

Photos: ©Amelia L. Williams (Ghost Pipe in the woods) and Morgan Library (book cover)

Dickinson’s poem about the Ghost Pipe (formerly called Indian pipe) “Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe,” can be found at the Morgan Library website. A drawing gifted to her by Mabel Loomis Todd, co-editor of the first posthumous collection, graces the cover.

The Ghost Pipe or Monotropa uniflora, is a flowering plant that has no chlorophyll, leaving it a ghostly, translucent white. It sometimes has a pink tinge on the outer petals, which are spotted or streaked with black. The position of the flower head changes over time, pointing down at first, then going parallel to the ground when the anthers have pollen – open for insect business – and finally lifting up vertically when the capsule fruit is ready to burst open and disperse the seeds.

A mycotrophic plant (autotrophs photosynthesize), drawing sustenance from a fungal companion in the genera Russula or Lactarius, Ghost Pipe is often associated with beech trees.

The tree + fungus ectomycorrhyzal relationship now becomes a deep woods ménage à trois. Ghost Pipe blooms in an ephemeral manner—when the conditions are right. It is considered rare, but not endangered. Because it requires this special set of relationships it does not transplant well. Please take photos and not the plant. It is a perennial and will bloom again next year!


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