Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"Indian pipe!" = Hello, pleasant day for a hike, isn't it? Would you by any chance be interested in looking at this unusual wildflower?

This past Sunday, I had just noticed a low cluster of translucent whiteness off the side of the trail when I heard someone approaching from behind. I turned and greeted the stranger with an enthusiastic "Indian pipe!" He said "What?" And I repeated, "I n d i a n  p i p e," being careful to enunciate since he apparently hadn't heard clearly, and gesturing toward the plant in question.

Indian pipe gets that name from its shape;
it's also called ghost flower
and corpse plant.
Photo from wildplantdatabase.net
In hindsight, I realize this was a rather odd way to make someone's acquaintance.

"Am I supposed to know what that is?" he asked in a friendly way, finally tipping me off to the fact that he might think me a bit odd. I'm just glad he didn't back away slowly while keeping a close eye on me.

Just in case it's new to you, let me share a bit about this weird wildflower. First off, it's white coloration resembles mushroom more than wildflower, but flower it is. Obviously it lacks chlorophyl, but it has to get nutrients from somewhere--it's mooching off the trees around it. But not directly. Instead, it uses an intermediary fungus to access the nutrients that the tree manufactures.

The underground fungus, which takes the form of long delicate threads, hooks up with the Indian pipe and also intertwines the fine rootlets of the tree. Both the fungus and the tree benefit from their association, which is known as a mycorrhizal relationship.  The fungus helps the tree's rootlets soak up water and nutrients, while the tree passes food it creates via photosynthesis to the fungus--and thereby on to the parasitic Indian pipe. Neither the tree nor the fungus benefits from its connection to the wildflower, but the Indian pipe cannot survive without both of them.

While you're out in the woods, keep a eye out for the funny little white plants rising from the duff.

And please, should you ever come across me in some forest and I greet you in a seemingly nonsensical manner, just put out your hand and say, "Pleased to meet you, Pat."

Have you ever met Indian pipe in the woods?

5 comments:

  1. Ha ha--I'd love to meet somebody on a hiking trail with such a greeting. I think I'd know you right away!

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  2. LOL I see how that would be quite a funny greeting especially if someone didn't know what Indian pipe is!  :D  I'd be so excited, though, too, to see it!  I've been hoping to find some, but haven't come across any yet.

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  3. I adore your enthusiasm!  And I'm proud of you for keeping Portland wierd.

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  4. I have never seen one! But now I want to...

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  5. As a matter of fact, I have.  They are fascinating and strange.  Thanks for filling me in on their growth and feeding habits. 

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