The Medicine and Mystery of Indian Pipe
Spirit Plant, Ghost Plant, Corpse Plant (Monotropa uniflora)
Maybe you've seen this unique, chlorophyll-devoid plant in your wanderings as it pokes up through the brown leaf litter in the forest and along its edges? Have you wondered about it and been fascinated by it like I have? This is Indian Pipe, also called Ghost Plant or Spirit Plant, (Monotropa uniflora) and it’s a traditional shamanic plant that offers many spiritual and medicinal properties.
Indian Pipe, by lacking chlorophyll, cannot make its own food and so must make agreements with others in order to survive. It absorbs its nutrients from a mycorrhizal fungi group living in the root zone of the forest. Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial (symbiotic) organisms that vastly expand the absorptive surface area of a tree’s root system and aid in the uptake of specific nutrients. In exchange for scavenging for nutrients the tree reciprocates by providing carbohydrates for the fungus, in the form of fallen leaves.
Germinating seedlings of Indian Pipe chemically mimic the tree’s root system causing the mycorrhizal fungi to attach to the roots of the newly forming Indian Pipe plant. Some call it a kind of ‘biological identity theft’. This doesn't resonate for me and I think more understanding will unfold as one spends time with Indian Pipe who is connected to the complex network of trees. The tree sends its sugars produced in photosynthesis to the fungus mycelium which in turn passes some along to the Indian pipe. This arrangement is technically called epiparasitism, a ‘parasite feeding on a parasite’. This word parasite conjures some negative thinking but it belongs within the realm of symbiotic relationships and I believe our scientists have not yet uncovered how Indian Pipe actually gives back within the cycle of things within the forest.
Indian pipe is only able to feed on one group of mycorrhizal fungi, the often colorfully-capped ones known as Russula. These beneficial fungi are able to attach to a wide variety of tree species including Oaks and Beech. Cool, moist and shaded conditions favoring the accumulation of thick deposits of leaf litter favor the development of the mycorrhizal fungus and mark the kind of location where Indian Pipe is likely to grow. Indian Pipe is often a quietly unassuming part of the workings of the complex forest ecosystem.
Since it can only feed on Russula fungi, Indian Pipe is an extremely rare plant and is never intolerant of cultivation or being transplanted. There are many lessons to learn from plants that require impeccable timing, a trust beyond the logic of a scientist, and bringing us to them while they move about mysteriously with growing requirements so detailed that we can understand them but cannot manipulate their existence. This plant should only be harvested sparingly, only when large colonies are found, and with profound respect for the spirit of the plant.
It would be auspicious and appropriate to know why we want some and to state it loudly. It is heard and the truth is known too. Then we can follow the response of Indian Pipe that is we intuit versus assuming what you want to hear or think we need or are entitled to.
Medicinal Parts: flowering tops, flowers
Best Preparations: Fresh Infusion, Fresh Tincture 50%, Flower Essence.
Important Note: dried is only useful for the compost pile so please do not bother with this.
Honoring Multi-Level Medicine...
Our First Nations People honored this plant for its medicine and mystery, physically and spiritually. This is an ally of medicine carrier healers who work deeply for their people by walking the healing road themselves. The appearance of white plants, as well as animals, is truly unusual and draws a deep reverence from all original people. Since we all carry the blood of our ancestors, and so we are undeniably connected to them, you may find yourself kneeling down in front of this one should your paths cross. Do this. Take this moment of reverence for Indian Pipe. I hold such a deep reverence for this beauty, and because of this, only make a flower essence when called to honor Indian Pipe’s mystical, magical way.
On the more physical level, Indian Pipe was employed instead of quinine to treat West Nile Virus and Malaria for some time. It’s an extremely potent nervine often used to treat seizure disorders, convulsions, insomnia, mental health disorders, PTSD, and chronic muscle spasms. It was also combined with other plants to bathe inflamed eyes. I suggest the easier grown and effective Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), Chickweed (Stellaria media), or Calendula (C. officinalis) instead, though I have to notice that it speaks loudly to 'clearing vision'. This may be part of Indian Pipe's alignment medicine.
Many stories are told that it’s an excellent pain reliever as one of its main constituents is salicylic acid, which is aspirin. So if you’re thinking it will be stronger than opioids to just kill pain, I would say this is not the plant for you. It may have a place in pain management but Willow Bark (Salix alba) and Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) provide the same physical medicine and are easier to find and grow, if we are talking physical medicine only. It also may produce compounds we do not understand yet which is why the stories speak to addressing conditions that aspirin does not touch. If you’re interested in digging deeper into why pain has become the language of your existence then yes, this is the plant for you.
Please turn to Indian Pipe Flower Essence for this deeper unraveling.
The True Gift of Indian Pipe
So it's here that the true gift of the Indian Pipe sits for me. Flower essences always meet each person where they are to support imbalance shifts. They’re work is subtle and transformative, rooting down to the core of an issue. Indian Pipe works on the alignment of both the root and crown chakras so we align with the Earth below and the cosmos above, to become the ‘hollow bone’. The stems are just like hollow bones, or clear conduits. Rooted deeply into the Earth itself, and assisting with the translation of the trees, Indian Pipe helps ground those who struggle to find their way.
I sometimes combine this essence with Lavender (Lavanula offcinalis) or Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) for deep dream work. It illuminates hope to those who seek their truth and are willing to do the work and face their fear and pain. Indian Pipe flower essence assists us in standing with the truth of our pain and to bear witness to it, instead of confining it to an expression within the confines of our physical nervous system or energetic emotional body. Think 'alignment', 'hollow bone'. To journey into the pain and ask the hard questions is the medicine of Indian Pipe. It is a still and quiet plant, and only those who are truly ready to bear that silence, which sits beyond fear and pain, will gain the full benefit of what this plant has to offer around personal truth. It brings brightness and is a beacon of light within ‘the dark night of the soul’ we all must travel at some point in life, guiding one back to a place of understanding, balance, and peace. Indian Pipe will stand strong next to one who faces their fears in the name of moving forward.
It moves from year to year and place to place...
I’ve noticed over the years that it grows near me on the last three pieces of blessed land I've lived on. I don’t find it every year, though I’m sure it is out there. It also moves around. Some plants we know will come up in the same place because that is their nature. Indian Pipe seems to dance around mysteriously and magically from year to year and place to place and I sometimes dream of it or have a flash of it before our paths cross while tending to something else. This is part of its medicine as well. I just came upon it the other day and I'm now retrieving my mother essence bottle from my apothecary, which I made the last time it appeared. Somewhere in our bones we all have the ability to recognize that when a certain plant shows up, it is for a good reason.
Key Terms for Indian Pipe Medicine: soul alignment, course correcting, staying on path, unearthing core issues that bind, entering the silence beyond fear or pain, clearing vision, honoring the hard questions we must bear, becoming the hollow bone for spirit.
Honoring the Medicine of Indian Pipe – Spirit Plant - xo – Jen
ElderMoon School of Herbs
Come deepen your walk with our original medicine plants and make them part of your primary healthcare system for you and your loved ones. We walk through building your own apothecary filled with potent medicines you learn to make yourself. Let's tighten the weave of who you are, right where you are, as you begin to birth and walk the path of your inner herbalist. Herbal study is on-going with Jen Costa, Herbalist, Critical Care RN, CST. Start anytime on-line.
Jennifer Costa, Herbalist-RN, Teacher, BS, EM-CST, and Founder of ElderMoon School of Herbs & Earth Medicine