The Medicine and Mystery of Indian Pipe
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.
Because it can only feed on Russula, 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 be harvested sparingly, only when large colonies are found, and with profound respect for the spirit of the plant.
Medicinal Parts: flowering tops, flowers
Best Preparations: Fresh Infusion, Fresh Tincture 50%, Flower Essence; dried is only useful for the compost pile so please do not bother with this.
Honoring Multi-Level Medicine...
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 though 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
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...
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