A ghost in the woods

PHOTO: Joshua Hurd, Flickr-CC-BY

I have a friend who’s into mushrooms. Not those mushrooms. Well, sometimes those mushrooms. But mostly the kind you eat.

This is how we ended up going for a hike that became a walk that became a slow meander off the trail while scanning the underbrush for fungi. 

I learned about some mushrooms you can eat, some you should never eat, and others that will cure constipation faster than a headlong sprint to the commode. But the most interesting plant we saw wasn’t a mushroom at all. 

All along this country road we found these tiny pale white plants. Each one curled like a hook with a single bell-like flower pointed toward the ground. First we saw one by itself, but then happened upon several small clusters of this haunting little plant. Knowing what they were, my friend became very excited. 

Ghost pipe, sometimes called Indian pipe or the corpse flower, is an unusual species. It’s a parasite that feeds on parasites. Kind of like a cat burglar who steals from the mob. Daring and dynamic, but ultimately a short-lived character.

If you pick a ghost pipe, the stem turns black almost immediately. Its ghostly white color tells us that it doesn’t feed off the sun through photosynthesis like green plants. Instead, it draws energy from the underground corpus of myccorhizal fungi like the Russula mushroom. Indeed, Russulas could be found all around the ghost pipe, themselves feeding off the complex root systems of nearby trees. 

The ghost pipe gets its name from its ghostly color and its resemblance to a tobacco pipe. Its other name, Indian pipe, hint at its medicinal applications. Native peoples describe using the plant to relieve pain, seizures, trauma and intense panic attacks or emotional breakdowns. 

One legend recounted by Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach gives further context to the role of ghost pipe in the natural world. The story goes that some Cherokee chiefs met with chiefs from another nation to settle disputes over hunting land. They smoked the peace pipe together, but continued to argue for another week. The Great Spirit, displeased with their behavior, turned them all into ghost pipe plants, each in the shape of a peace pipe. This signified new growth over the place of past conflicts.

I can’t help but think of the political and cultural contention present in our society. Maybe these plants are telling us something important.

Another interesting aspect of ghost pipe is that it is both incredibly rare and yet widespread. It can be found in almost all the forested areas of North America, from Canada to Florida. Nevertheless, your chances of finding it on any given day are very low. They dwell underground, waiting for the right conditions to send up flowers. As such, seeing a ghost pipe flower is much like seeing a real ghost.

As we were inspecting the collection of ghost pipe plants, I noticed a honeybee visiting the flowers. That means that somewhere there’s a hive full of ghost pipe honey. What does that honey taste like? Is it sweeter than clover honey? Bitter? Hallucinogenic? 

Would it be like the “mad honey” made from the nectar of rhododendron flowers that ancient Persians left behind to incapacitate their Roman foes? Is it medicine? Or is it just honey of a slightly different hue?

Answering these questions would take considerable research, some of which might lead to a highly dissociative mental break, bee stings or, perhaps, the mushroom skitters. So I leave this line of inquiry in the woods with the ghost pipe plants. I saw them. They exist. One day they will return to remind that nature is much more complex than you think and that our differences are considerably more petty than we care to admit.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Joe musich says

    The variety in life is awe inspiring as is the math of existence. I am happy you were able to see the wild in the wild. So thinking of the other corpse flower what sort of smell did these little guys have if any? Thanks for the Persian honey weaponing fun fact.

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