Stumbling upon small wonder in hunt for big one

Stumbling upon small wonder in hunt for big one

We were in the hunt for the largest White pine in Wayne County when my colleagues and I stumbled upon an equally inspiring plant in the deep shadows of the pine giant. It’s not unusual to find more than what you’re looking for when you trot a bunch of nature junkies out into the woods, and with half of my staff from Wayne Soil & Water Conservation District on the mission I was certain we’d find more than just a big tree.

It was Stacey that first spotted the stark white anomaly rising from a bed of pine needles.

“Wow, look at this!” she said, kneeling for a closer look.

Soon we were all gathered around a fist-sized cluster of small white stalks, each of which turned at the top like the handle of a cane to hang a single bone-white flower. As a whole the shape was strikingly similar to that of a 17th century clay pipe. I’d never seen the plant before, but I knew right away what we were looking at — Ghost pipe!

Ghost pipe is also known as Indian pipe occurs across the majority of North America, but because of its preference for thick rich forest soils and deep shade it’s a rare siting for most folks. It can be easily mistaken for some form of fungi, especially at a distance, because of its strikingly white tissue, but it is in fact a perennial flowering plant that just so happens to lack chlorophyll — the pigment that absorbs light enabling photosynthesis.

So how in the world can a plant that is unable to make its own food survive? The Ghost pipe has a somewhat unique solution: It uses a go-between to steal nutrients from green plants, and that “middle man” is something called mycorrhizal fungi.

Most plants benefit from a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. They help the plant absorb an enormous amount of moisture and nutrients the plant root might otherwise miss out on. Imagine a mop with nothing more than a simple rectangle of sponge on the end. That’s a typical plant root. Now add a cotton mop head with hundreds of foot-long strands to that sponge and you’re soaking up that spill in an instant. That’s what mycorrhizae do, all in exchange for essential nutrients the fungi can’t make for themselves.

The Ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora), or “one bend, one flower” (I can’t pass up the Latin translation!), jumps into the nutrient loop by tapping into the mycorrhizae and skimming off some of the sucrose, or plant sugar, that the fungus is actually syphoning for itself!

And to think we found all of this happening in the shade of a giant pine tree! That’s the way Nature is. The closer you look, the deeper you dig, the more wonderment will arise.

We did find our “Big Tree” on that same foray into the woods. The multi-trunked monster stands near a small pond in “Parfitt’s Paradise” near Chippewa Middle School in Doylestown. If you are interested in learning more about the contest winner or would like to join in the hunt for next year’s Big Tree — the largest White oak in Wayne County — check out our website at

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world please write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627 or email John at You can also follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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