Indian Pipe

Photo copyright Lauretta Jones

Green is my favorite color, in no small part because it is the color of growth and renewal in the plant kingdom. Coming out of a long monochromatic winter, the fresh yellow-greens of spring never fail to brighten my mood. But why are plant leaves green? And why is the native Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) a ghostly white instead? It is not a mushroom or a fungus, despite a visual similarity, but a bona fide member of the Plant Kingdom.

Leaves are green because they contain chlorophyll. Chlorophyll enables a plant to make food out of carbon dioxide and sunlight. This process is called photosynthesis. Indian Pipes do not have chlorophyll, and hence are white rather than green. The lack of chlorophyll also means that Indian Pipes are unable to manufacture their own food and that they are able to live in deep shade.

So how does the Indian Pipe survive? Its roots tap into a fungus from which it takes nutrients. The fungus, in turn, is tapped into tree roots. While the fungus and the tree are helping each other by exchanging nutrients, the Indian Pipe is a simple freeloader: a parasite of both the fungus and the tree.

The small scales along the Indian Pipe stem are leaves, and each stem holds a single blossom. After they are pollinated by bumble bees, they turn black and grow tiny seeds.

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