The Marginalian

The Poetic Science of the Ghost Pipe: Emily Dickinson and the Secret of Earth’s Most Supernatural Flower

By maria popova.

In the late autumn of 1890, four years after Emily Dickinson’s death, her poems met the world for the first time in a handsome volume bound in white. Beneath the gilded title was a flower painting by Mabel Loomis Todd — the complicated woman chiefly responsible for editing and publishing Dickinson’s poems and letters.

emily dickinson ghost pipe

Any flower would have been a fitting emblem for the poet who spent her life believing that “to be a Flower is profound Responsibility,” but none more than this one — a flower she had collected in the woods of Amherst as “a wondering Child,” then pressed into her teenage herbarium and into her poems, enchanted by its “almost supernatural” appearance.

She considered it “the preferred flower of life.”

Monotropa uniflora , known as ghost pipe, is unlike the vast majority of plants on Earth. White as bone, it lacks the chlorophyll by which other plants capture photons and turn light into sugar for life .

Throughout the summer — usually after rainfall, usually under beech trees — the ghost pipe emerges from the darkest regions of the forest floor in clusters, from the Himalayas to Costa Rica to Amherst. Each stem bears a single nodding flower — a tiny chandelier of several translucent petals encircling its dozen stamens and single pistil. Bumblebees, drawn to the pale beauty despite their astonishing ultraviolet vision , are the ghost pipe’s most passionate pollinators.

emily dickinson ghost pipe

The secret of Earth’s most “supernatural” flower is its uncommon relationship with the rest of nature:

Rather than reaching up for sunlight like green plants, the ghost pipe reaches down. Its cystidia — the fine hairs coating its roots — entwine around the branching filaments of underground fungi, known as hyphae. So connected, the ghost pipe begins to sap nutrients the fungus has drawn from the roots of nearby photosynthetic trees.

Out of this second-hand survival, such breathtaking beauty.

The mystery of how the ghost pipe flourishes without chlorophyll has enchanted scientists since the dawn of botany. The answer began bubbling up with the discovery of the mycorrhizal network undergirding the forest — a term coined in 1885 by the German botanist, plant pathologist, and mycologist Albert Bernhard Frank, from the Greek mykos (fungus) and rhiza (root). But for nearly a century, the mycorrhizal network — and its relation to the mystery of the ghost pipe — remained a purely theoretical notion, until in 1960 the Swedish botanist Erik Björkman used sugars laced with the radioactive carbon-14 isotope to trace how nutrients move between trees and nearby ghost pipes via the underground fungi.

It was a revelatory notion — an entirely new type of relationship we had never before imagined, as old as the living world.

Less than a century later, we know that 90% of plants rely on these mycorrhizal relationships for their survival — an interdependence for which the English botanist David Read coined the term “the Wood Wide Web,” to describe the groundbreaking research of Canadian plant ecologist Suzanne Simard , who furnished the definitive evidence for it in the 1990s.

emily dickinson ghost pipe

By late autumn, the ghost pipe has turned black and brittle. By winter, it has vanished.

“That it will never come again,” Dickinson wrote, “is what makes life so sweet.”

From the brevity and beauty of the ghost pipe’s bloom emerges a tender living poem about the transience of life, about its mystery, about the delicate interdependence that deepens its sweetness.

Complement with a Dickinson-inspired adventure in nature’s nonbinary botany and some Dickinson-lensed reflections on the flower and the meaning of life , then relish the ongoing mystery of chlorophyll .

— Published August 23, 2023 — —




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’tis whiter than an indian pipe –.

Emily Dickinson’s favorite flower was the ghostly Indian pipe, also known as the corpse plant. She drafted this poem on a fragment of ruled stationery paper in 1879; no other copy exists. 

emily dickinson ghost pipe

'Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe – 'Tis dimmer than a Lace – No stature has it, like a Fog When you approach the place – Not any voice imply it here – Or intimate it there – A spirit – how doth it accost – What function hath the Air? This limitless Hyperbole Each one of us shall be – 'Tis Drama – if Hypothesis It be not Tragedy –

’Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe – Poem, ca. 1879 Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Wisdom of the Plant Devas

Herbal medicine for a new earth, ghost pipe: a hauntingly rare plant for physical and emotional pain.


Monotropa uniflora

When a friend approached me about excruciating pain in his spine as a result of nerve damage from a degenerative joint disease, the hauntingly translucent, ephemeral, and ghostly white image of Ghost Pipe, danced before me. He desperately wanted to avoid opiates. I have rarely needed to use this plant that grows in the dense, dark under-story of the forest where I live, but in the past few years I have noticed it growing in greater abundance. It is a rare plant and not commonly encountered, so I took these sightings as a sign that a need for its medicine may be at hand. Could this plant help my friend as he searched for other answers? I wondered.

Resembling a spine and brain stem, Ghost Pipe is a nervous system ally aiding in the modulation of sensory input. The plant has been used as a nervine in Western Herbal Medicine since the late nineteenth century, and a tincture of the whole plant has been used for people in intense physical pain, but it doesn’t make the pain go away. Pain serves a purpose. It alerts us to what needs our attention. With the aid of Ghost Pipe we don’t deaden the pain, but rather distance it so we can work with the pain without being overwhelmed by it. Ghost Pipe puts the person beside their pain, so they can see it and deal with it. It is not your normal analgesic. In the words of Herbalist, David Winston, “…you know it hurts, but simply don’t care.” It reduces sensitivity to painful stimuli and raises the pain threshold. It can help a person feel more grounded and present rather than overtaken by overwhelming pain.

Ghost Pipe also works with emotional pain in a similar manner. Whether the initial shock of emotional pain, people physically paralyzed by emotional pain, or acute anxiety or panic attacks marked by sensory overload, it has the same action as setting the pain beside you (think nervous system modulator). It dulls the perception of pain and may be useful for psychotic episodes or triggering of emotional memories. Herbalist, Ryan Drum, who works with this plant in the Pacific Northwest, believes it has a great future as a psychiatric nervine in acute cases.

In my book, Wisdom of the Plant Devas: Herbal Medicine for a New Earth , I propose that if a plant’s medicine is needed, it will show up, and that our medicine is as close as we are right now. Since it showed up for me in relation to my friend, who was trying not to succumb to the opioids his doctors were recommending, I suggested he look into Ghost Pipe as a possible ally. Where I currently live in Western North Carolina, we are experiencing an opioid epidemic that is devastating families and communities. Could Ghost Pipe be showing up here at this time for a reason? North Carolina has been especially hard hit and opioid overdose deaths have increased more than 22% in a single year (2017) over the prior year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, opioid-involved overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 1999, according to the Citizen Times. Could Ghost Pipe provide an alternative to opiates in certain cases, helping us to engage and deal with our pain? Could research on this plant lead to the development of other pain relieving drugs that are less damaging than what is currently available? I believe we are in need of a new mindset where pain is not the enemy, and we can find hope in our relationship with the natural world.

Ghost Pipe, also known as Indian Pipe, or corpse plant, and whose botanical name is Monotropa uniflora , is an herbaceous perennial devoid of plant blood. Lacking chlorophyll it does not generate energy from sunlight. Ultimately, Ghost Pipe gets its energy from the photosynthesis of trees, parasitically sapping nutrients and carbohydrates from the tree roots through the intermediate source of myccorhizal fungus. These fungi colonize the tree roots in a symbiotic, albeit parasitic relationship, and play an important role in soil chemistry, helping to make nutrients available to the tree.  

Indian Pipe_1734

Ghost Pipe Cluster, photo ©2019 Thea Summer Deer

M. uniflora is indeed a ghostly plant, a parasite feeding on a parasite. This three-way relationship between a photosynthetic tree, a mycorrhizal fungus and a parasitic plant is a ménage á trois, but it is not clear who is getting what from the ghostly one. America’s eminent poet, Emily Dickinson, called it “the preferred flower of life,” and she never ceased to wonder at its mystery. The Cherokee and First Nations People also honored this plant for its medicine and its mystery. If you happen to come upon it, take in its unique beauty with reverence. This is a magical gift from the natural world. There’s a lot going on underground that we are only just beginning to understand about this plant.

Ghost Pipe appears from early summer to early autumn after a rainfall and when the weather is warm, bearing a single bell-shaped flower. Spending most of its life underground it grows in the dark because it is not dependent on light for photosynthesis. It may look like a fungus, but it really is a flowering plant. Eventually poking its way up through decaying leaves, Ghost Pipe rises on a slender stalk, and then nods its flower head, thus resembling a pipe with its stem stuck in the ground. Slowly the plant will straighten into an upright position with the flower pointing skyward. It is only about five inches tall and commonly found in small clusters. A fascinating plant, it only grows in select temperate regions with large gaps in-between and can be found in Russia, North America, Asia and northern South America.

The genus name Monotropa, means “one turn,” and refers to the curve at the top of its stem. The species name uniflora , means “one flowered.” It is in the Ericaceae family, which also includes blueberries, rhododendron, azaleas, and arctostaphylos (manzanitas, uva ursi, bearberries), and they all like the same acidic soil. Propagation and cultivation are next to impossible because of the delicate processes it adheres to.

I know from experience that harvesting this plant can be a delicate undertaking and recommend a whole plant tincture in 100 proof vodka. Even a gentle touch can bruise, so it is best to tincture it in the field, harvesting only a few plants from each colony. The resulting tincture is a pleasingly deep violet color.

Indian Pipe_1728

Ghost Pipe in various stages, photo ©2019 Thea Summer Deer

Please use caution and respect when harvesting as this is considered a rare plant. Very little of it should ever be needed, so harvest sustainably and ethically, and only when large colonies are found. Harvest when the plant’s flowers are curved over and facing the ground. It is too late to harvest if the flowers are upright. After this they will quickly turn black and begin to dissolve. Bring prepared menstruum, jars, and a bowl of water with you so you can tincture immediately after lightly brushing off and washing the roots.

One of M. uniflora’s main constituents is salicylic acid, which is also in aspirin. The Cherokee considered it a pain remedy of the highest order. You will know that this plant is for you if you are willing to journey into your pain, bear witness to your pain, and be an active participant in your healing process. There is information that can be received when we are not completely numb to our pain. To relieve specific types of physical pain it may be paired with anti-inflammatory and anodyne herbs such as willow ( Salix spp. ), or anti-spasmodics such as wild yam ( Dioscorea villosa ) and Black Haw ( Viburnum prunifolium ). Combine with holy basil to disperse intense emotions that may be coming up.

Herbal Actions: sedative, nervine, antispasmodic, anodyne, diaphoretic

Useful for:

  • Overwhelming physical pain (combined with anodyne herbs)
  • Migraine like headaches associated with traumatic brain injury
  • Anxiety and panic attacks associated with emotional or sensory overload
  • Triggering of emotional memories

May also be useful for: Childhood seizures, febrile seizures, and epileptic seizures.

To make a fresh plant tincture:

  • Pack plant tightly into a pint canning jar filling to top.
  • Add 100 proof vodka, filling jar to the top
  • Shake daily for 2 weeks.
  • You can leave herb in alcohol until all tincture is consumed, or strain and decant.

Frequent small doses seem to work best to disrupt pain cycle. Not recommended for long term use past one month of daily use.

Dosing: (Note: 1ml = 20 drops)

For physical pain: Start with 3 drops and jump to 1ml if no response, up to 40 drops (2ml) every half hour. If severe use 1ml at 5 minute intervals. Once pain level improves, increase the amount of time between doses and reduce dosage amount.

For psychological pain: Up to 2, 1ml doses to manage initially. 2-3, 1ml dose at 5 minute intervals for severe panic and agitation. 1-3ml doses for psychotic episodes. Will work within 15-30 minutes with the person usually falling asleep and waking up more calm and coherent. May be contraindicated for anyone taking stimulants prescribed for ADHD.


Ghost Pipe: A Little Known Nervine by Sean Donahue

Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians by Patricia Kyritsi Howell

USDA Forest Service: Monotropa uniflora – Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe

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55 thoughts on “ ghost pipe: a hauntingly rare plant for physical and emotional pain ”.

Wonderful article. Beautiful message thank you. I believe exactly what you are saying is true. The plant allies want to help us and they show up when we need them. What if we showed the earth the same intelligent respect?

Sent from my iPhone (770)335-7292

Would you possibly have any of this tincture to sell? Some ghost pipe found me the other day while I was looking for mushrooms and I actually have been in extreme pain. Emotionally and physically. I’m confident in my ability to confront myself and my pain and really appreciate the information bit am asking for a step further. Please contact me back

Hello Megan, I do not sell tinctures. You will need to search online for what is currently available. If you find a brand or product that you like, please feel free to share it with us here.

Hi Thea; I live in Halifax Nova Scotia. Last year I started collecting Indian Pipe, for the first time. This year I cannot fine any new growth. I see the black stems of last years but none this year. Is this normal?

Thanks for this post, Thea. Informative, easy reading. Met some ghost pipe in Canada once but have never used it. I’ll be in the mountains next Wednesday, will keep my eyes 👀 open. Green blessings, EagleSong 🌿

Earth Matters

Thank you EagleSong. It may be a little too late in the season for it in the PNW, but we are having quite the Indian Summer here in the Appalachians. May it be blessed!

Thanks Thea! I subscribed to your newsletter because Ghost Pipe popped up in my front yard in Black Mountain! I was very surprised, and now I’m very honored. Many thanks!

Interesting how she showed up for you! Thank you for subscribing.

Thank you, Thea! I too, believe pain serves a purpose. I’ve come to realize my physical pain came to me to address my emotional pain. The pain relievers I’ve chosen are not relieving the physical pain and I’ll continue to seek out the loving remedy. My place of region(Colorado), ghost pipe has not crossed my path. Appreciate the information!!!

Love & Gratitude, Jodi

Thank you for checking in on this Jodi. I will hold that you will find the right and perfect solution as you unwind the sources of your pain.

Hoping you are still reading these comments…just wondering if you harvest the entire plant. I am also in the Appalachians and just came across several good sized patches of these on our mountain. I am interested in making a tincture for personal use. Thanks so much, Traci

I recommend harvesting a few stalks from different plants as to not stress the plant. Bring scissors and pint jar with vodka. Cut as low as you can without disturbing the roots

Hello Thea. Hoping you are still checking these comments…I have run across a good sized patch of ghost pipe and wanting to make a personal tincture. I’m wondering if you harvest the entire plant? I too live in the Appalachians. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed all the wonderful info. Traci

Hi Traci, yes you harvest the whole plant, brushing it off if needed with a soft brush, and immediately putting it in the menstruum because of its delicacy.

A photo today on fb of this plant on Vancouver Island. I hadn’t heard it before, Ghost Pipe. I’m drawn to it and hope to be able to harvest some. Thank you for the insight.

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My stomach doesn’t tolerate 100 proof vodka. Any other ways to process ghost pipe for ingestion?

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Such a beautiful plant.

Just moved to WA my house is in a small forest… Hiking around today I found several patches around my house, did a little research and came across your site. Im a long time depression sufferer steming from finding my dad dead after he committed suicide when I was 9… Can’t help but to see it as a sign after reading the info on your site. Going to be making a tincture today. Thanks!!!!

I was instructed to cut low in the stem to not harm the roots. I have a few jars of the beautiful purple tincture.

How long does it keep, does it need kept in refrigerator?

Herbal tinctures and extracts when done properly can last for years. They do not need to be kept in the refrigerator.

My ghost pipes are blooming at my house again right now!

That is so exciting! They love this warm wet air.

I have found several plants this morning and would like to make the tincture. How many plants per pint jar? Directions say “pack plant tightly in pint jar…it doesn’t say PLANTS but says PACK TIGHTLY. Just a bit confusing for a beginner.

That’s a good question! Plant refers to plant material and one plant species Monotropa uniflora. It would be impossible to know how many plants since they can vary in size. Even if you can’t fill jar to the top with plant material, fill it with as many plants as you are able to ethically harvest and add enough menstruum to cover. This is called the folk method and does not give standardized dosing.

I harvested a couple yesterday and put them in the fridge (I didnt have vidka on-hand). Would they still be good to make a tincture today?

They bruise pretty easily so I would imagine it would be fine if not too bruised or discolored.

I used everclear instead of 100 proof Vodka. Is the dosing the same? Should I dilute it? Thank you ~ Monica

Everclear is too hot (high proof alcohol) for delicate Monotropa. It may be too late to dilute it. You’ll have to test it and see.

Interestingly, I found some fresh ones yesterday, packed them in Graingers Organic 80 proof overnight and the liquid was still clear this morning. So I drained and packed in Everclear (I still had some left in the bottle from last batch) and within an hour the liquid is a beautiful dark purple. So 100 proof (as you said) is probably perfect.

Is monotropa better than wild lettuce for pain?

The herbal actions are different. I do not have direct experience with wild lettuce, but would love to hear from someone who has.

These grow abundantly in some woods nearby. I’ve never harvested or used them, but I feel like just being in their presence has helped me heal some really deep stuff I was going through when I first happened upon them. I’ve gone to those woods probably a hundred times and every single time I feel so uplifted afterward, it’s a feeling unique to that place. These are my *favorite* forest spirits, and today, I was introduced to one of their multi-flowered crimson sisters for the first time in those same woods. I’ve always wanted to encounter those ones but they’re so rare! What a blessing!

Beautiful! Thanks for sharing your encounter.

Thanks for your site. I have just discovered the Indian Pipe this summer from a new friend. Was able to find several plants on my walks. Not knowing the proper way to harvest, I did pick a bunch and returned home before putting them in vodka. It has been several weeks now and we have filtered and re-bottled. My wife has tried a few drops for neck pain and has been helped. With all the “covid” confusion we may find the tincture helpful emotionally. May even pick several of the plants that have dried out now and try a tea. Will do better next year. Ed in Nova Scotia.

I just found a new growth of ghost western mass today. Some.are white and some are red in color. use for a tincture ? I find a new growth this late in the season!

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May I try the Indian ghost pipe for my fibromyalgia pain? I currently am lessening my vicoprofen to 2 a day to wean myself off of it than I need to supplement of some kind for the pain

I do not think that this plant would be good for that type of pain. Fibromyalgia is chronic pain, Monotropa is more for accute pain.

Try Amanita Muscaria (fly agargic) mushroom (red with white dots on cap) for chronic pain. Reportedly, a few drops topically on sciatica kills the pain for WEEKS. If it is dried first (decarboxillated) to remove poison, tincture can be ingested for pain.

Good luck 😉

Looking for a reputable place and product for sale. Pointing me in the right direction would be appreciated. Thanks, RJ

What source that you cite explains to pack a whole pint jar with plant material to the top? That sounds like it would make a very potent tincture. Also approximately how many pipes would you need? I’d imagine quite a bit!

Please see references. Tincture preparation is for one pint.

So interesting , can you buy n England ?

Does it show up in a drug test.

I have no idea, but I would seriously doubt it. It’s not illegal.

Hello I had a dream I was walking in a forest. And I seen this plant. I asked what it was and someone said ghost pipe. I looked it up and It lead me to this article. I am Native American so I do believe if you dream and remember it. It’s usually a message. I had no idea what this plant (fungi) was used for and lo & behold. One of its medicinal uses is for Migraine headaches associated with traumatic brain injury which I suffer from. So if anyone could point me in the right direction to acquire a tincture. Please contact me

Here is one source:

The ones in my front yard are just coming up now.

Haven’t used it yet. But made a tincture just in case. Been on Opids for over 25 years prescribed by the VA and now a Pain Clinic. Not sure what might happen in the future. So figured I’d keep some handy. I’ve had Service Connected Chronic pain for almost 46 years now from a collapsed Parachute accident in 1977. Supply Sgt. even had my Dress Greens ready to bury me in. I can tell anyone that there’s no way your going to stop all the pain unless they knock you out. You have to learn to live with it. Your lucky if you can just take the edge off. Had Emergency surgery in 2020 because intestines were dying from scar tissue. The anistegelogist said I was the first every to try to get him to hurry and knock me out. I told him I was in pain and knew that was the only way I would get relief.

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One Need Not be a Chamber — to be Haunted

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One need not be a chamber—to be haunted— One need not be a House— The Brain—has Corridors surpassing  Material Place— Far safer, of a Midnight—meeting  External Ghost— Than an Interior—confronting— That cooler—Host— Far safer, through an Abbey—gallop— The Stones a’chase— Than moonless—One’s A’self encounter— In lonesome place— Ourself—behind Ourself—Concealed— Should startle—most— Assassin—hid in Our Apartment— Be Horror’s least— The Prudent—carries a Revolver— He bolts the Door,  O’erlooking a Superior Spectre More near—

From The Poems of Emily Dickinson Variorum Edition , ed. R. W. Franklin, 3 vols (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1998). 

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Dear march—come in—(1320).

Dear March—Come in— How glad I am— I hoped for you before— Put down your Hat— You must have walked— How out of Breath you are— Dear March, how are you, and the Rest— Did you leave Nature well— Oh March, Come right upstairs with me—

One Sister have I in our house (14)

To make a prairie (1755).

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, One clover, and a bee. And revery. The revery alone will do, If bees are few.

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Decorative woodsy background

Ghost Flowers


Where the long, slant rays are beaming, Where the shadows cool lie dreaming Pale the Indian pipes are gleaming —   Sarah Foster Davis, Summer Song

On a walk in the woods in early fall, you may see a cluster of waxy, white stems with tiny, scale-like leaves rising out of the leaf litter or pine needles. At the end of each translucent stem is an odd, bell-shaped flower. This is Indian pipe, named for its resemblance to the clay pipes once smoked by Native Americans and early settlers.

Indian pipe, also known as corpse plant and ghost flower, has an unusual strategy for survival. It lacks the green pigment chlorophyll, and therefore cannot make its own food through photosynthesis as most plants do. Indian pipe and its relatives were formerly believed to live off decaying organic matter and were called saprophytes. However, more recent research has revealed that the plant is a parasite, sucking up nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Trees and mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship: the fungi absorb nutrients from the trees; the trees benefit by increasing the surface area of their root systems, allowing them to drink in more water and minerals. Indian pipe interjects itself into this relationship, absorbing nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi but giving nothing back.

Plants that feed on mycorrhizal fungi are called mycoheterotrophs, or sometimes just mycotrophs. These plants evolved from photosynthetic ancestors, but at some point in their history they abandoned that strategy. Many green plants such as orchids are mycotrophic during some phase of their life cycle, often when seedlings, and some continue to obtain some nutrients from fungi even as they grow larger and photosynthesize. Mycotrophic wildflowers are often specific about which fungus they feed on. For example, the snow plant of the Sierra Nevada is associated with just a single species of mycorrhizal fungi.

Other mycotrophic wildflowers found in our region include the tan or yellowish pinesap, which has a few flowers on each stem and taps into the roots of oaks or pines through a mycorrhizal intermediary; beech-drops, a parasite on the underground fungi in beech forests, which sport tiny purplish flowers on slender stems; and spotted coral-root, an orchid with a smooth purple stem and small purple and white flowers that grows in dry soils in a variety of forests. While these plants are all common, there are two rare species in the Northeast: the pinkish hairy pinesap and the autumn coral-root. All of these plants are easy to recognize because they have no green leaves, but unlike mushrooms, they have flowers. Since they don’t need sunlight, they can grow in dense shade.

For many years, the pollinators of Indian pipe were unknown. Recent research using remote video cameras has shown that bumblebees are major pollinators. Once the nodding white flowers are pollinated, they turn upwards, and the plant begins to turn brown or black. Each flower develops into a fruit – a dry capsule that encloses sawdust-like seeds. One day the capsule splits open and the tiny, winged seeds are dispersed by the wind. You can see the dry stalks of Indian pipe that remain through the winter.

The other-worldy appearance of Indian pipes has enchanted people for centuries. There are Native American stories of its origin and the plant has inspired several poets. The Indian pipe was one of Emily Dickinson’s favorite flowers and appeared on the cover of her first book of poetry. Nineteenth century writer and educator Catherine Esther Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) wrote To the Monotropa, or Ghost Flower :

Pale, mournful flower, that hidest in shade Mild, dewy damps and murky glade, With moss and mould, Why dost thou hang thy ghastly head, So sad and cold?

Look for these unusual plants on your next walk in the forest.

by Susan Shea

Susan Shea is a naturalist, writer, and conservation consultant who lives in Brookfield, Vermont.

© by the author; this article may not be copied or reproduced without the author's consent.

Discussion *

“ Oct 11, 2018 We saw many of these in the Adirondacks this summer following a rainy few days. Heavily forested with beech trees, and my understanding is that this is a preferred habitat. Susan March
“ Oct 10, 2018 Just this summer I saw a bumblebee disappear into a beech drop.  At first I was confused, but then remembered.  These too were flowers and apparently need to be pollinated by insects.  Interesting because we assume insect pollinated flowers are more colorful or have a smell.  I’ll have to start smelling these small, unassuming plants. Cindy

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09 Jul Ghost Pipe, aka Indian Pipe, wildflower is rare, mystical and appears above ground just one week each year

Updates for 2021: ghost pipe / indian pipe is plant with no chlorophyll; found in most u.s. states.

Wandering Rose Travels readers like one oddity of nature … in fact they liked, commented and shared it 12,600 times! Our Ghost Pipe (or Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe or Corpse Plant) wildflower post is by far the most popular in our three years on Facebook.

It’s not unusual for our posts to reach 10,000-20,000 viewers and receive 1,000-ish reactions. But the Ghost Pipe post blew those numbers away with 123,000 views and more than 1,700 shares.

Never heard of this wildflower? Neither had we until hiking in July with contributor Jim Tobalski. A perpetual student of plants, wildlife and birds, Jim teaches us to fully appreciate and be aware of all that is around us when hiking. On a recent hike we were on high alert after after seeing reports of sightings of the rare plant Ghost Pipe.

We were lucky to discover two different groupings while hiking abandoned logging roads in Ashe County, North Carolina. We don’t claim to be botanists or any kind of wildflower expert, but we’ve learned a lot by researching reputable internet sites and hearing from Wandering Rose followers who commented on the post.

Update: We hiked the same area in June 2021 and discovered many groups of these rare plants in different parts of the property. Often these rare flowers hide among ferns or other forest foliage so you have to look carefully and maybe move some fern leaves if you spot an area that seems conducive to supporting this beauty.

Ghost Pipe (or Indian Pipe) is found throughout most of the United States. Click the text link below to see a map by county of verified sightings.

Ghost Pipe appears above ground for just one week

Ghost Pipe is known by many names, most commonly Indian Pipe, Corpse Plant (it turns black after blooming) or monotropia uniflora for those in the know. While Ghost Pipe grows wild in most of the United States (except the Southwest), sightings are rare and each plant blooms for just one week annually. The other 51 weeks each year this mysterious plant lives completely underground. Unlike most plants, it contains no chlorophyll, giving it a “ghostly” translucent image and its name.

For the most part, plants make food from the sun’s energy through photosynthesis and chlorophyll. I’ll stop the explanation here, or my plant ignorance will become apparent. A few including Ghost Pipe belong to a clan called heteromycotroph, getting nutrients from soil fungus that in turns gets its nutrients from the roots of mature trees in forests.

Leaves, stalk and flower are all a ghostly translucent white, ranging in height from 4 to 12 inches tall. Each steam bears a single flower, which points down like a pendant on emergence from the ground. As the flower matures it gradually becomes upright before releasing its seeds and withering away. This process is one week from beginning to end and the plant blooms from late June to September depending on location.

ghost pipe indian pipe

Emily Dickinson calls Ghost Pipe “the preferred flower of life”

Poet Emily Dickinson called Ghost Pipe “the preferred flower of life” and her first book of poetry features it on the cover.

Many proclaim its healing power, including several Facebook post responders who use Ghost Pipe medicinally. Long before Europeans arrived, native North American Indian tribes used the plant as medicine. Cherokee tribes reportedly used the root to prevent convulsions; Mohegans used the plant as a pain killer and Cree chewed the flower as a toothache cure.

Ghost Pipe sightings are reported by Facebook post viewers across much of the United States. Many remember seeing the plant as a child but not in adult life. One reader recalled the plan was so unique even 60 years ago that a magazine did a photo essay on flowers growing above her grandfather’s garage.

Another reader remembers going in the West Virginia woods as a child each year with her grandmother who always knew when and where to find Ghost Pipe. Others shared photos they had taken plant, some not knowing what they were seeing prior to our post. Ghost Pipe is actually kin to blueberries, though I have no idea how. I simply pass along with the scientists say. A common theme with everyone is a great respect for this wonder of nature. Even those not knowing what they were seeing knew they had discovered something unique and mystical.

If you have photos or stories about Ghost Pipe please share with us via the comments section below. We will include them in a future Facebook post.

And if oddities of nature are your thing, check out this article on meat-eating plants to continue your education. 

emily dickinson ghost pipe

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The only ghost I ever saw

Emily dickinson 1830 (amherst) – 1886 (amherst).

The only ghost I ever saw Was dressed in mechlin, --so; He wore no sandal on his foot, And stepped like flakes of snow. His gait was soundless, like the bird, But rapid, like the roe; His fashions quaint, mosaic, Or, haply, mistletoe. Hi conversation seldom, His laughter like the breeze That dies away in dimples Among the pensive trees. Our interview was transient, -- Of me, himself was shy; And God forbid I look behind Since that appalling day!

Submitted on May 13, 2011

Modified on May 01, 2023

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Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet.  more…

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emily dickinson ghost pipe

Indian Pipe–The Most Amazing Flower

White as an Indian Pipe Red as a Cardinal Flower Fabulous as a Moon at Noon February Hour–

Emily Dickinson (1250, year 1873)

Have you ever seen Indian Pipe–white and waxy–growing like some walking dead thing under the pines? It’s gorgeous and haunting. Its other name is “corpse plant”, so that should give you some idea of what you think when you first see it!

A long, long time ago and far away (2 hour drive from here) I used to collect wildflowers. I had a backpack filled with everything for hiking and collecting–first aid kit (which I used to help strangers, btw), a wild flower field guide, and a small flower press I’d made myself and painted. (No digital camera back then :().

Well, one day I came across this flower.


I like to use the word “love” a lot when describing my feelings toward any plant that just instantly captures my heart and imagination, but it’s true–I was in love. I wanted to pick it, and press it, and take it home. (As Emily did).

However, if you’ve seen these, too, you know that when you pick them they get back at you by turning black! I even tried to put them on ice so that they would stay white long enough for me to get them home and show them to others–but no.

Emily Dickinson’s first book of poetry, published posthumously, has this flower on the cover. It was one of her favorite, if not very favorite, wild flower. Farr’s books says toward the end of her life Mrs. Todd (Emily’s brother’s long-term lover) painted her a picture of these flowers and she wrote back her thanks, “That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none” (L769).

Here is a picture of the book:


On pages 172, 173, and 174 of Marta McDowell’s book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens, she talks in length about the Indian Pipe. Besides discussing its importance to Emily, she also gives a primer on the flower itself. “The Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is an unusal plant, visually and botanically. It looks like a waxy albino stem of lily of the valley, completely white and leafless….it is an angio sperm, a flower plant, but one incapable of photosynthesis. Unlike the green growing things around it, it can’t manufacture its own food but relies on symbiotic relationships.” McDowell wonders if this is not very much like the Woman in White, Emily, and her reclusive life at her home in Amherst. (174)

I bring this flower up on my own gardening blog, not because I have any growing on my property– if only –but because I found another wildflower yesterday growing in the pasture and I stopped to take a picture. I’m not sure what it is–some Lupine perhaps? But what a pretty addition from seemingly no where.


Are there wildflowers at your homes–surrounding woods? Any special ones that you look forward to? Have you seen the Indian Pipe?

Please leave a comment and I’ll enter you to the drawing on May 4th.

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23 responses to “ indian pipe–the most amazing flower ”.

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There is another one I look forward to, that grew in the meadows at Field’s Spring Washington–Indian Paint Brush.

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Linda, That beautiful wild flower looks like Grass Widow to me. I love and study wildflowers. I also love poetry and would read my sons my favorite poems when they were children because they didn’t seem to study poetry in school here. Arlene.

That is so cool, Arlene–that you read your boys poetry and that you study wildflowers. I don’t know that most educators have a real “love” for poetry or flowers–and so it’s rare that it’s passed on to students. Lucky them if they find a teacher who does–or a parent–or anyone who can speak into their lives–because both do something good for the human spirit, don’t they? (Kind of like horses.)

Linda, I have never seen the Indian Pipe. It’s not a native to Sagebrush country but it’s so awesome I’d love to see one. I have never had any luck with Japanese Maple here because the winters are too cold. They do survive if planted in a sheltered spot against the house in the Spokane area. I love the Japanese maples with the pale green leaves and also the maple called the Golden Fullmoon maple. I saw one in a nursery on the coast that was beautiful but the summers here were too hot and the winters too cold for it. I bought some tiny bare root Japanese maples from the Lincoln County Conservation District this year to give them a try because I read that the Japanese maples that are not grafted but are from their own root are hardier that the ‘named’ varieties.

I didn’t plant my Japanese Maple against the house–it’s a about 20 feet out–hopefully, it will be sheltered from the strong Southerly winds. I didn’t realize Spokane was so harsh on them, but it makes sense. I had one in Lewiston, but it’s warmer there and it was planted against the house, as you mentioned. 😦 I’m going to have to really watch it and maybe come up with a solution to protecting it this winter! (Built it its own house…..(?)….hmmm….

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What beautiful flowers, I have never seen any of these. Thanks, for sharing. Hugs~~~Leslie

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I have never seen indian pipes, but I have read about them in several novels. Your story is so nice, and the pictures beautiful. Now I know what to keep an eye out for on my next walk in the woods!

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Wow I just went over all your posts , I ‘m sure you not in the south by the type of plants and bushes you are choosing . As the will not survive here. I like the choice very Much , they will be beautiful when they are adult sized plants and bushes, I use to have may of them when I liked in NJ but now in Fl the planting is all together different .there are so many plants that need the extreme cold to survive and grow well in the warmer times of the year.We can’t have any type of real evergreen here and our roses get very large in the winter and very small in the summer. I enjoyed looking over your blog and I love that plant that you showed called the Indian pipe. I am sure that would not live here either. our flowers bloom all year around . that is one nice thing.

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They are stunning Linda. I don’t know what the purple flowers are but they are all over at Fishtrap. I love flowers, however, do not have much of a greenthumb.

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Oh my goodness, I would have never realized those were Indian Pipes on the cover if you hadn’t pointed it out. My 1978 reprint of Favorite Poems of Emily Dickinson has that image embossed on the cover and also printed on the dust jacket.

I have seen Indian Pipes only twice in my life. Once during my girlhood in upstate New York. The last time about 15 years ago on my mother’s farm in Michigan’s upper peninsula. I was walking along the edge of the woods. They were growing maybe a yard into the tree line.

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Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) have re-established themselves in a shady part of my garden since I put up the deer fence last year. This week one is going to bloom!

Indian pipes occasionally grace my garden under the big spruce trees in late summer. They are always a gift. Dickinson also included indian pipes in her herbarium. There is a lovely facsimile edition which is, sadly, quite expensive. But Harvard also has the images online at .

I hope everyone gets a chance to see Indian Pipe on your adventures someday.

Marta McDowell–comment above–is the author of Emily Dickinson’s Gardens–one of the books this blog is based on. I would encourage all garden loving–poetry loving–souls, to add her book to your collection. 🙂 Hey, maybe that will be my next give-away! I’d love to share this book with someone else.

Thank you for the link! I’d love to have that edition of her herbarium, but the link will have to suffice for now. Well, unless I can find it for CHEAP on ebay–you never know.

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how beautiful..

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I’m blessed to live on 3 acres of woods. When we built our home we only cut down the trees that were in the way of the foundation we need to build. Now the dog woods are blooming, the sunflowers are starting to come up and the wild voilets are bring color to our home.

That is a blessing! It would be like living on a nature hike!

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I found a clump of Indian Pipe growing in the Woods behing our house. We live in is a small town in upstate NY Even though I had never seen the flower before, I think I knew right away what it was from books that I had read. I was so pleased to see them there.

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I was very excited to find this flower growing on the back lawn of our cottage. We live in Ontario, Canada and of course the area is very shaded, damp with lots of leaf litter around. I had no idea what it was and my first instinct was that it was a fungus or type of mushroom plant. I am happy to find so much information about the plant. I can’t wait to go back next weekend and see how it is doing! We have had a cold, damp summer so I guess this is the benefit we get in return. It is a beautiful, surprising, stunning flower!

Le-Ann, this was a long time ago, but I am wondering what your thoughts are now on Indian Pipe? It’s a flower no one can bring to you, so you have to experience it yourself by walking out to it. Otherwise, you’re limited to pictures. I think everyone should have the opportunity to see Indian Pipe in their lifetime. I’ve seen it only once. You’re lucky to have it growing near you.

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I became entranced by this flower the first time I saw it, just one, on a little hiking path. I had no idea what it was and after researching found that it was the Indian Pipe. I was so lucky to have found it again hiking in Dolly Sodds, WV. I have quite a few pictures and would love to share these if anyone is interested.

Danielle–I would love to see your pictures. Could we share them on the blog along with your story and impressions? Thanks.

I would love to share them. How do I post the pictures?

I just saw this comment….a little bit late. If you’d like, you can email them to me at [email protected] and I’ll put them up on the blog. I’d love to have more pics of Indian Pipe. I haven’t seen it in years.

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emily dickinson ghost pipe

Within a week in the summer of 2018, I came across “the ghost-flower” in 4 locations while out hiking, all in shady locations in mature forests at middle elevations. Their appearance seems to vary with the weather conditions that particular growing season, so we are always delighted and a bit surprised to come across them.

  • Monotropa uniflora is a parasitic perennial.
  • As the stem grows from a “fleshy” root cluster, white unbranched, erect stems rise to to 30 cm in height.
  • Single bell-shaped terminal flowers form, one per stem, erect at first, but drooping with maturity.
  • The flowers turn to one side (monotropa) and then the whole plant turns black with age.
  • White scale-like linear bracts line the stem.
  • The flowers mature in mid-summer. The flowering period is only 1 to 2 weeks.
  • Other names for this plant are corpse plant, ghost flower. and ice plant.
  • All photos taken by the author. Click an image for a larger (lightbox) view along with a caption (month and location).
  • As the herb matures, the flowers become more perpendicular. The seeds are borne in erect capsules and split open with maturity.
  • Indian-pipe grows in mature forests with richer, moist soils.
  • It is a saporophytic species, that is it is a symbiotic (or parasitic) relationship between tree roots and specific fungi, in which the plant gets all or part of its food from parasitism upon the fungi, rather than from photosynthesis.
  • The plant may have black flecks or pink hues.
  • The flowers are cross-pollinated by long-tongued bees, probably seeking nectar.
  • In the late 1800s, the plant was used as a nervine (calming) in herbal medicine. The roots have anti-spasmodic properties.
  • First nations people in BC used it to rub on sores and wounds to assist healing.
  • The herb contains some toxic glycosides so should not be eaten.
  • Emily Dickinson called Indian-pipe “the preferred flower of life”, marveling at the mysteries of the specimen. She wrote a poem entitled “‘Tis Whiter than an Indian-pipe”
  • Ghost flower cannot be easily transplanted since it relies on woodland humus and the appropriate fungi.
  • Bears may feed on the plant or on the root mass.

Bringing a sense of wonder to the outdoors arms us with the desire to come across unexpected wonders in the forest, so we keep an eye on what is growing in to the sides of the trail, and one of the delights/discoveries is an emerging cluster of corpse plants.

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Homesteading & Sustainability

emily dickinson ghost pipe

Ghost Pipe Flower

Author: Emily-Jane Hills Orford // Last updated on October 5, 2023 Leave a Comment

“Ready for a ghostly encounter with a flower? Let’s see if we can find one.”

“Find one?” I asked (always intrigued with her ideas).

“A ghost flower.” She half whispered, eerily.

“A ghost flower.” She said it louder this time. “It’s a parasitic plant that doesn’t need chlorophyll since it feeds off nutrients from the soil.”

emily dickinson ghost pipe

“That’s why it’s white and ghostly,” she continued. “Like something out of a Halloween movie. It grows well in mature forests, usually during a rainfall that follows a long dry period. But it only grows for about two days! Some say it’s good luck to find one because they come and go so quickly.”

“Well, we’ve just ended a long dry spell with a good soaking of rain,” I agreed. “So we should be in luck.”

“But we can’t pick them,” she added. We have to leave them so they spread their seeds and produce more flowers.”

“I’ll take my camera instead.”


Also known as Indian pipe or corpse plant, this rare perennial plant is a member of the monotropaceae family, the genus Monotropa being Greek for “one turn” which describes the sharp curving at the top of the stem. Its botanical classification, uniflora, refers to the fact that it’s “one-flowered.” Every plant has one flower for a stem — all ivory white (in fact, the entire plant is white).

Occasionally one can find an individual ghost pipe with pink coloration and black specks. The plant flowers between June and September, and when it does, the blossom only lasts a couple of days. Ghost pipes grow between 4 and 8 inches with smallish leaves that appear somewhat scaled.

The plants are usually found in clusters at the base of trees where they sap nutrients from the tree roots. Sometimes a plant can be found growing alone with no other ghost pipes nearby. Their consistency is like frozen jelly.

Spiritual Meaning

Different groups of people associate diverse meanings for this unusual plant. Native Americans believe that ghost pipes carry souls of their departed ancestors, many associate the plant as a connection to the spiritual world. The ghost pipe had a role in important life ceremonies, all related to an individual’s soul.

The Cherokee believed that ghost pipes originate from the selfish nature of humans. Two quarrelling tribes came together to discuss the problem behind these disagreements. They smoked a peace pipe together, while continuing to quarrel for seven days. As a punishment for smoking the peace pipe before actually making peace amongst themselves, the Great Spirit turned the quarrelling chiefs into grey flowers and made them grow where others quarreled. There, the ghost pipes grew as a reminder. This parallels other beliefs in the plant being a symbol of peace.

Natural Habitat

Ghost pipes thrive in the humus of deep, damp, shady woods at low to moderate elevations. They can be found throughout the United States and particularly around the Great Lakes of both Canada and the States. It has also been found in parts of Asia, Russian, and northern South America. Typically, it appears in the same location every year, unless it’s dug up by trespassers or developers.

Growing Conditions

The plant grows like a parasite. It’s white because it lacks chlorophyll, and since it can’t photosynthesize, it depends on certain types of fungi that grow at the base of trees. Ghost pipes absorbs nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi in the soil at the base of trees. The mycorrhizal fungi share a symbiotic relationship with the trees. In other words, they benefit from each other.

Trees absorb sunlight which the plant uses to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars, while the mycorrhizal fungi harvest minerals in the soil. Whilst the mycorrhizal fungi and the tree share its nutrients, the ghost pipe plant exploits it, meaning it acts like a parasite, absorbing nutrients from the tree and the decay of soil matter (the fungi).

emily dickinson ghost pipe

As mentioned, ghost pipes grow well in mature forests and usually appear when a lengthy dry spell ends with rain. As the moisture hits, the plants suddenly appear. It’s a plant that thrives on moisture and little sunlight, growing best in wet forests and in full shade. The growing cycle of the ghost pipe is relatively slow.

Sometimes it takes months or even years before the plant has gathered enough nutrients. During this time of absorbing nutrients, it’s growing underground. Then, quite suddenly, it appears above ground with its eerie white stalks and flowers. Insects, particularly bumble bees, are attracted to the seed pod at the top of the stem. The seed pod produces and releases tens of thousands of extremely tiny seeds.

Blown away by the wind, the seeds start the cycle all over again, with no effort exerted by the plant itself. The dispersal of the seeds not only encourages more plants, it also helps the dispersing plant grow again the following year.

This plant is considered rare, though it’s not on any endangered species list. Although it can appear in the woods during most of the summer months, its actual appearance is short. It spends much of its growing life completely underground.

Pests and Diseases

The biggest and most troublesome pest for this and any other rare plant is human intervention. Careless hikers and hunters trample the plants as they march through the woods. Curious gardeners dig up the ghost pipes to transplant in their own gardens, often not successfully, as the plant needs a specific growing condition which most home gardens don’t have.

Due to its jelly-like consistency, it literally dissolves into mush when handled. Once destroyed or removed from their original location, the ghost pipe won’t regrow. It has a specific growing process which works best if it’s left alone. If you see them, take pictures, tread carefully, and leave them alone. Then you’ll know where to find them again next year.

Medicinal and Culinary Uses

There are many uses for the ghost pipe. It’s considered an excellent source of calcium, which strengthens the bones, and high in magnesium which is good for the nerves and muscles. However, it’s mostly the root of the plant that’s used. Roots should be gathered in September and October, and dried, pulverized, and stored in sealed bottles.

The ghost pipe plant is considered useful in helping people suffering from pscyhoemotional shocks and traumas. The root is used as a tonic, a sedative, and an antispasmodic. It helps calm restless nerves, nervous irritability, anxiety, and PTSD, often substituted for such treatments like opium.

It has been used as a cure for fevers and to treat epilepsy, chorea, and similar spasmodic afflictions. Due to these uses, the ghost plant root has been dubbed the “fit” or “convulsion” root. Combined with rose water, it has been used to treat ulcers and other inflammations.

Like anything good, ghost pipes must be used in moderation. Too much is never a good thing. The plant is edible but only in small quantities. The taste is bland when eaten raw and it tastes like asparagus when cooked. It’s the glycosides that make this plant dangerous if consumed in large amounts. In other words, beware because ghost pipes can be toxic!

It may be beneficial. It might look good in your garden, if it survives the transplant. But this ghostly apparition of a growing phenomenon is best left where it’s found. Why? Well (if for no other reason) to absorb its magical attributes. Just finding this plant is a sign of good luck, and we all need a bit of that.

Ghost pipes, lucky or not, have been an inspiration for creative ventures. American poet, Emily Dickinson was particularly fond of the ghost pipe. The cover of her first book of poems (published in 1890) showed an image of the ghost pipe. And she wrote a poem about it, referring to the ghost pipe using its alternate name, Indian pipe . Her poem “Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe” was published in 1879:

‘Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe — ‘Tis dimmer than a Lace — No stature has it, like a Fog When you approach the place — Not any voice imply it here — Or intimate it there — A spirit — how doth it accost — What function hath the Air? This limitless Hyperbole Each one of us shall be— ‘Tis Drama — if Hypothesis It be not Tragedy —

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About Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Emily-Jane Hills Orford is an award-winning author of several books, including Gerlinda (CFA 2016) which received an Honorable Mention in the 2016 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards, To Be a Duke (CFA 2014) which was named Finalist and Silver Medalist in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and received an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards. She writes about the extra-ordinary in life and her books, short stories, and articles are receiving considerable attention. For more information on the author, check out her website at:

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After Emily

The ethereal indian pipe.

On this day in 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd recorded the following entry in her diary:

“This letter made me happier than almost any other I have ever received. It fairly thrilled me, which shows that my susceptibility to magnetic friendships is not entirely confined to men, as I have occasionally thought myself.”

The letter to which she referred came from none other than Emily Dickinson. Mabel was so taken with Emily’s letter that she copied it, word for word, into her journal, as well as writing about it in her diary.

Emily’s letter to Mabel thanked her for a painting Mabel had created and sent upstairs to the reclusive poet during a recent visit to The Homestead. Mabel’s painting was of Indian Pipe wildflowers. This ethereal looking wildflower is also known as “the ghost plant” or the “corpse plant.” It contains no chlorophyll and because it does not depend on sunlight to grow, can flourish in dark, forested places. It’s more like a mushroom than a traditional wildflower, appearing suddenly and unpredictably. Its white countenance is striking. And it only lasts for a few days.

“ That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none,” Emily wrote.

Of course Emily Dickinson, who cultivated flowers and studied them meticulously, would have greatly appreciated Mabel’s efforts to capture the ephemeral “ghost plant.” “I had pondered for a long time to send her a painting of something,” Mabel wrote in her journal, “but when I came back I looked over my studies and by a sudden inspiration I determined to paint the Indian pipes on a black panel for her.”

In Emily’s response, Mabel knew that she had hit the mark in her choice of subject:

“To duplicate the vision is almost more amazing, for God’s unique capacity is too surprising to surprise. I know not how to thank you—We do not thank the rainbow, although its twoplay is a snare.

To give delight is hallowed—perhaps the toil of angels whose avocations are concealed.”

It’s not surprising that, years later, Mabel chose her panel of Indian Pipe wildflowers to grace the cover of the first published volume of Emily’s poetry. For Mabel, this was a symbol not only of the poet whose poetry had long been hidden from the world and would only then sprout up like the Indian Pipes, but also a symbol of the bond she felt she’d made with the poet whom she’d never actually met. Knowing this, years later Millicent also decided that the most appropriate symbol to have etched on her mother’s headstone was…the Indian Pipes

Interesting – and weirdly – right after I had received the first proofs of After Emily from W.W. Norton, I was out walking my dog and saw something I’d never before seen in the woods in front of the home where I’ve lived for three decades: Indian Pipe wildflowers. I snapped a photo on my phone because I could hardly believe what I’d seen!

One thought on “The ethereal Indian Pipe”

How very beautiful to see these images including your own sweet photograph, and to learn the story behind Mabel’s painting, and of her homage to Emily’s love of the Indian Pipe plant. Thank you.

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Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham, and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet

Biodiversity for a Livable Climate

Biodiversity for a Livable Climate

Featured Creature: Ghost Pipes

emily dickinson ghost pipe

What plant generates energy without photosynthesis, thrives in darkness, is said to quell anxieties, and was cherished by American poet Emily Dickinson?

That would be Monotropa , also known as “Ghost Pipes”, “Ghost Plants”, “Indian Pipes”, and “Corpse Plants”, among other names!

emily dickinson ghost pipe

The three species of ghost pipes are generally rare and native to temperate regions of Asia, North America, and northern South America. Unlike most plants they lack chlorophyll and can’t photosynthesize. Instead, they act as parasites to obtain their food, feeding off  mycorrhizal fungi below the surface of the forest floor. 

Those fungi are in turn linked underground to the trees of the forest, so monotropa gets its food ultimately from sugars photosynthesized by trees. Since it is not directly dependent on sunlight, monotropa plants can grow in dark environments such as the understory of a dense forest. 

What a lovely example of ecological interdependence , where these three species all interrelate in an extremely complex manner, and effectively work together to benefit all of them. It’s beautiful to think about the vast network of life that takes place in undisturbed areas. Paul Stamets refers to this as “Earth’s Natural Internet”:

The complex situation that allows ghost pipes to grow also makes propagation difficult. Many people refer to this strange plant as Indian pipe fungus, but it is not a fungus at all – it just looks like one. It is actually a flowering plant, and believe it or not, it is a member of the blueberry family, according to some scientists. 

The surprising results of monotropa’s unique survival mechanism have made them a dark horse favorite of many naturalists, from Emily Dickinson to members of several Native American tribes across North America. After getting to know these plants, it’s not hard to see why. 

Monotropa hypopitys flowers.

The name “Monotropa” is Greek for “one turn”, as every plant has one large turn-like curve near its apex. “Uniflora” is Latin for “one flowered” since they have one sharply curved stem for each single flower (see photos). Really, it’s all in the name.

America’s eminent poet, Emily Dickinson, called the Indian pipe “the preferred flower of life” and her first book of poetry features this plant on the cover.  In a letter to Mabel Todd, she confided that, “I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering Child, an unearthly beauty, and maturity only enhances the mystery, never decreases it.”

Monotropa as Medicine

The ghost pipe has also been cherished by many Indigenous groups across Turtle Island (or North America) for medicinal qualities. Some Native Americans used the sap to treat eye infections and other ailments. A simple search of the Native American Ethnobotanical database helps us know how else it was used.

The Cherokee used it as an anti-convulsive where they first ground up the roots and then administered it during epilepsies and convulsions. They also crushed it up to rub on bunions or warts. The juice and water was used to wash sore eyes. 

The Cree Indians chewed the flowers to use as a toothache remedy. Mohegan Indians used ghost pipes as an analgesic, taking an infusion of the root or leaves for pain due to colds. Basically it was used to reduce the effects of fevers and pain. 

The Thompson Indians in British Columbia used a poultice of the plant for sores that would not heal. They also noted that an abundance of the plant in the woods indicated many mushrooms that season (which makes sense given the relationship it has with mushrooms). 

The Potawatomi used an infusion of the root as a gynecological aid to treat menstrual cramps. Modern herbalists sometimes use it as a nervine . Nervines are herbs and plants that can potentially help regulate the nervous system, so the goal of nervine tonics is to restore a depleted, stressed or anxious nervous system.

The Cherokee have a legend about the Indian pipe that was passed down orally from generation to generation. The legend tells the story of ancient chiefs who would meet to settle arguments and when they were done would smoke the peace pipe. But then they broke that tradition…

Before selfishness came into the world, the Cherokee happily shared the same hunting and fishing lands with their neighbors. However, everything changed when selfishness arrived. The men began to quarrel with their neighbors. The Cherokee began fighting with a tribe from the east and would not share the hunting area. The chiefs of the two tribes met in council to settle the quarrel. They smoked the tobacco pipe but continued to argue for seven days and seven nights. The Great Spirit watched the people and was displeased by their behavior. They should have smoked the pipe after they made peace. The pipe is sacred and must be treated with respect. He looked down upon the old chiefs, with their heads bowed, and decided to send reminders to the people. So the Great Spirit transformed the chiefs into white-gray flowers that we now call “Indian Pipe.” The plant grows only four to ten inches tall and the small flowers droop towards the ground, like bowed heads. Indian Pipe grows wherever friends and relatives have quarreled. Next the Great Spirit placed a ring of smoke over the mountains. The smoke rests on the mountains to this day and will last until the people of the world learn to live together in peace. That is how the Great Smoky Mountains came to be.

— Lloyd Arneach (Eastern Band of Cherokee)

emily dickinson ghost pipe

Description and Life Cycle

The ghost pipe plant arises from a tangled mass of rootlets. Its stems reach heights of from 2 to 12 inches (5 to 30 cm.) and are sheathed with highly reduced leaves of 3/16 to 3/8 inches (5 to 10 mm.) long, which look like small, thin and translucent scales. 

Monotropa uniflora.

In Monotropa uniflora , the stems bear a single flower 3/8 to 13/16 inches (10 to 20 mm.) long, with between 3 and 8 translucent petals, 10 to 12 stamens and a single pistil. It flowers from early summer to early autumn, often a few days after rainfall. The fruit, an oval capsule-like structure, enlarges and becomes upright when the seeds mature; after that the stem and capsule start to look desiccated and turn a dark brown or black color. Monotropa uniflora seeds are small, ranging between 3⁄128 and 1⁄32 inch (0.6 to 0.8 mm.) in length.

Monotropa hypopitys ( Monotropa meaning “once turned”; hypopitys meaning “under the pine or fir”) is also known as the Dutchman’s pipe, false beech-drops, pinesap, or yellow bird’s-nest. It is a herbaceous perennial plant, native to Northern temperate regions and scarce or rare in many areas. However, monotropa hypopitys is still the most widespread member of the subfamily. 

Monotropa hypopitys.

Monotropa hypopithys is generally red or deep pink. It has several flowers on each fleshy stem, while all of its parts are pale yellowish white to reddish tinged. These plants flower from April to December depending on the geographic region (May to October in North America). The plants that flower in summer are yellow, sparsely hairy and may be self-pollinating, while those blooming in autumn are red and densely hairy.

Upon emerging from the ground, the Ghost Pipe’s bell-shaped flowers hang down to protect their nectar from dilution by rain. As bees and other insects visit the nectar wells hidden deep inside the flowers, they access sugars created by a tree and dispersed by a mushroom. With their unique lifestyle, ghost pipes are able to bloom in deep woods where little else can. 

Monotropa uniflora.

The blooming begins with a single, odorless, drooping, cup-shaped flower with four or five petals borne at the tip of the stalk. As the flowers mature, they spread to being almost perpendicular to the stem. The fruit emerges as an oval capsule. As that capsule matures, the flower becomes upright (in line with the stem). Once ripened, seed is released through slits that open from the tip to the base of the capsule. The plant turns black as the fruit ripens or when it is picked and dried. The plant’s parts bruise blackish upon handling, and it emits a clear, jelly-like substance when injured. The plant is persistent and perennial after seed dispersal.

Monotropa hypopitys flowers.

Rooted in relationship

These plants were once believed to absorb all nutrients from decayed organic material, but it is now known that they are associated with a fungus, and thus obtain their nutrients directly from the roots of green plants. Indian Pipe, therefore, is more of a parasite, with mycorrhizal fungus as a “bridge” between it and its hosting trees, deriving its energy from trees who use chlorophyll to photosynthesize. 

Not just any fungus will do, however; Monotropa uniflora appears to have evolved this relationship only with species in the mushroom family Russulaceae , namely, Russula or Lactarius mushrooms, which connect with the roots of pines, oaks, beeches, and other trees. These fungal networks supply water and minerals to the trees and receive sugars in return.

Detail of flowers

Detail of flowers showing each of 10 anthers open with 2 curving splits (Photos from Wikipedia)

Ingesting the Ghost Pipe

When sharing about this plant it is important to note concerns about overharvesting and other threatening factors such as loss of habitat through clearcuts and soil disturbance. Ghost Pipe thrives under the forest canopy. As this plant likes to keep its feet wet, the dryer the ecosystem becomes, the harder it is for this plant to survive. So let’s prevent the continued increase in the popularity of and demand for Ghost Pipe, and become a voice for all plants in need of our protection for their continued growth and success.

The flowers of Monotropa uniflora are visited by various bee and fly species, most commonly bumblebees. Bumblebees are an important pollen dispersal agent for the plant, which is often associated with beech trees. The plant contains glycosides and may be toxic to humans, though it has been used as an anxiolytic in herbal medicine since the late 19th century. 

emily dickinson ghost pipe

Despite possibly being toxic, the entire plant can be cooked, which lends it an asparagus-like flavor. So can you eat this plant? The answer is yes and no. You can usually eat a small quantity of almost any plant without harm. The safe threshold depends on the types of compounds in the plant. Indian pipe has a fair number of compounds that are toxic in large doses. 

Consequently, it is not recommended to eat many of them because of the presence of a number of alkaloids and glycosides that have been proven to have toxicity in fairly low amounts. If you eat it raw it’s almost tasteless, but with a spicy aftertaste which is beneficial as it doesn’t make you want to keep eating them. One is about all you can get down before the spice kicks in.

The reason you wouldn’t want to eat them is due to their glycosides. Scientists discovered grayanotoxins present in a large number of flowers, twigs, and leaves in the Ericaceae family (to which Indian pipes belong). Grayanotoxins mess with the sodium channels of the neurons, which control nerve firing. With these disrupted, you lose the ability to move the muscles in your diaphragm (among other things), potentially causing respiratory depression and bradycardia. At high doses it also causes nausea, salivation, vomiting, weakness, dizziness and loss of balance. 

Interestingly, these grayanotoxins can also be picked up from bees foraging on the flowers and get added to their honey. If people eat the honey that was derived from plants in this group there is the potential to get very sick, such that this honey product is referred to commonly as “ mad honey ” (known as “deli bal” in Turkey). Even in quantities the size of a teaspoon, this honey can bring on light headedness, or in higher doses hallucinations. While mad honey is somewhat toxic, it’s also something that clearly alters your physical state and hence ingesting these grayanotoxins may have been popular in some circles for the high they produce.


Herbalism and wildcrafting are becoming increasingly popular, and it is understandable that we all want to connect with the earth and its medicine. However these plants and ecosystems deserve our respect and attention to their current status and existential threats. It is only responsible to educate ourselves on the plants that are rare, threatened, endangered, plants that are impacted by commercialism. Many folks wildcrafting this plant will speak of this plant as being “sacred” and attribute its medicinal uses as being a nervine and an analgesic.

Folks wildcrafting Ghost Pipe defend their gathering of the plant by saying they take only the aerial parts, adding to it catch phrases such as “ethical” or “sustainable” to make their audience think that they are being respectful of the plant. But if this plant is so “sacred” we should LEAVE IT ALONE, because it cannot withstand mass wild harvesting. Those who defend their practices by saying they “take the aerial parts” should keep in mind that removing the flowering parts is removing the fruit bearing seeds that are the next generation of Ghost Pipes. 

Renee Davis wrote an article about Ghost Pipe in which she gives a list of a few alternative plants to use in place of Ghost Pipe. Below is an excerpt from her GHOST PIPE RESPECT blog post:

“I too am enamoured and moved by Ghost pipe. So I leave it in its habitat to continue its life. I sit with it, photograph it, and take in everything it has to offer. There’s more magic there than having it ground up in alcohol on my apothecary shelf.” As Howie Brounstein said, “It’s easier to gather plants than to not gather them.”

Displaying a pink coloration

(Photos from Wikipedia)

The species in this subfamily are all mycoheterotrophic , relying on fungal hosts for their carbon nutrition. The fungi parasitized by these plants are ectomycorrhizal species of fungi. Hence, these plants act as direct parasites of these fungi, and also indirectly act as an epiparasite of conifers and the larger shared mycorrhizal network. The morphology of the root and the root-level fungal symbiont is distinctive and referred to as monotropoid mycorrhiza . (Although mycorrhizas are generally considered to be mutualistically favorable relationships, it is generally recognized as well that mutualism and parasitism exist on a continuum, and that plant-fungus symbioses with a clearly mycorrhizal root anatomy can also include exploitative relationships.)

Monotropa uniflora.

What an interesting organism! It finds a way to thrive as a second-order parasite on photosynthetic cone-bearing trees, tapping into the web of  mycorrhizal nutrient exchange throughout the forest floor. Wouldn’t it be nice if we humans accepted and embraced our own symbiotic interdependence with all other species on this planet? These “ghost pipes” may be calling us to a more holistic view.

Collectively yours (in peace or pieces)…

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Emily Dickinson: Ghost Poems

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© 2023

The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two

By emily dickinson, time and eternity, poem 29: ghosts.

  • Year Published: 1896
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Dickenson, E. (1896). The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two. Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers.
  • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 6.6
  • Word Count: 88
  • Genre: Poetry
  • Keywords: 19th century literature, american literature, emily dickinson, poems, poetry, series 2
  • ✎ Cite This

Dickinson, E. (1896). Time and Eternity, Poem 29: Ghosts. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved October 06, 2023, from

Dickinson, Emily. "Time and Eternity, Poem 29: Ghosts." The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two . Lit2Go Edition. 1896. Web. >. October 06, 2023.

Emily Dickinson, "Time and Eternity, Poem 29: Ghosts," The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two , Lit2Go Edition, (1896), accessed October 06, 2023, .

One need not be a chamber to be haunted, One need not be a house; The brain has corridors surpassing Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting External ghost, Than an interior confronting That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop, The stones achase, Than, moonless, one's own self encounter In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed, Should startle most; Assassin, hid in our apartment, Be horror's least.

The prudent carries a revolver, He bolts the door, O'erlooking a superior spectre More near.

Indian Pipes

emily dickinson ghost pipe

Cluster of six white ghost flowers (“Indian pipes”) in a grassy bed. Painted over a black background with gold border.


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  5. Ghost Pipe, aka Indian Pipe, wildflower is rare, mystical and appears

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  6. Ghost Pipe, aka Indian Pipe, wildflower is rare, mystical and appears

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  1. Ghost Pipe


  1. The Poetic Science of the Ghost Pipe: Emily Dickinson and the Secret of

    The Poetic Science of the Ghost Pipe: Emily Dickinson and the Secret of Earth's Most Supernatural Flower By Maria Popova In the late autumn of 1890, four years after Emily Dickinson's death, her poems met the world for the first time in a handsome volume bound in white.

  2. 'Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe

    Emily Dickinson's favorite flower was the ghostly Indian pipe, also known as the corpse plant. She drafted this poem on a fragment of ruled stationery paper in 1879; no other copy exists. 'Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe - 'Tis dimmer than a Lace - No stature has it, like a Fog When you approach the place - Not any voice imply it here -

  3. Ghost Pipe: A Hauntingly Rare Plant for Physical and Emotional Pain

    Oct Monotropa uniflora When a friend approached me about excruciating pain in his spine as a result of nerve damage from a degenerative joint disease, the hauntingly translucent, ephemeral, and ghostly white image of Ghost Pipe, danced before me. He desperately wanted to avoid opiates.

  4. One Need Not be a Chamber

    Find and share the perfect poems. One Need Not be a Chamber — to be Haunted Emily Dickinson 1830 - 1886 One need not be a chamber—to be haunted— One need not be a House— The Brain—has Corridors surpassing Material Place— Far safer, of a Midnight—meeting External Ghost— Than an Interior—confronting— That cooler—Host—

  5. Ghost Flowers

    The Indian pipe was one of Emily Dickinson's favorite flowers and appeared on the cover of her first book of poetry. Nineteenth century writer and educator Catherine Esther Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) wrote To the Monotropa, or Ghost Flower: Pale, mournful flower, that hidest in shade Mild, dewy damps and murky glade,

  6. Ghost Pipe appears above ground for just one week

    Poet Emily Dickinson called Ghost Pipe "the preferred flower of life" and her first book of poetry features it on the cover. Many proclaim its healing power, including several Facebook post responders who use Ghost Pipe medicinally. Long before Europeans arrived, native North American Indian tribes used the plant as medicine.

  7. The only ghost I ever saw by Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson 1830 (Amherst) - 1886 (Amherst) Nature. The only ghost I ever saw. Was dressed in mechlin, --so; He wore no sandal on his foot, And stepped like flakes of snow. His gait was soundless, like the bird, But rapid, like the roe; His fashions quaint, mosaic,

  8. Indian Pipe-The Most Amazing Flower

    Posted on April 18, 2009 | 23 Comments White as an Indian Pipe Red as a Cardinal Flower Fabulous as a Moon at Noon February Hour- Emily Dickinson (1250, year 1873) Have you ever seen Indian Pipe-white and waxy-growing like some walking dead thing under the pines? It's gorgeous and haunting.

  9. The only Ghost I ever saw

    Back to Poems Page. The only Ghost I ever saw by Emily Dickinson. The only Ghost I ever saw. Was dressed in Mechlin -- so --. He wore no sandal on his foot --. And stepped like flakes of snow --. His Gait -- was soundless, like the Bird --. But rapid -- like the Roe --. His fashions, quaint, Mosaic --.

  10. Leaving Latitude: Emily Dickinson and Indian Pipes

    Ghosts! Native American, Indian pipes are indigenous to any dark woodland. When I was a child, tramping with my father through the forests along Lake Michigan in Door County, Wisconsin, we would often hold our breaths. Deer we could glimpse only at twilight in the meadows at the

  11. Indian-Pipe

    Emily Dickinson called Indian-pipe "the preferred flower of life", marveling at the mysteries of the specimen. She wrote a poem entitled "'Tis Whiter than an Indian-pipe" Ghost flower cannot be easily transplanted since it relies on woodland humus and the appropriate fungi. Bears may feed on the plant or on the root mass.

  12. PDF Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), also called ghost

    Emily Dickinson, America's eminent poet, claimed Indian pipe to be her favorite flower. In a letter to Mabel Todd she wrote, "I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the round when a wondering child, and unearthly booty. And maturity only enhances the mystery, nere decreases it." Its image adorned her book Poems

  13. Ghost Pipe Flower • Insteading

    Ghost pipes, lucky or not, have been an inspiration for creative ventures. American poet, Emily Dickinson was particularly fond of the ghost pipe. The cover of her first book of poems (published in 1890) showed an image of the ghost pipe. And she wrote a poem about it, referring to the ghost pipe using its alternate name, Indian pipe.

  14. The ethereal Indian Pipe

    Of course Emily Dickinson, who cultivated flowers and studied them meticulously, would have greatly appreciated Mabel's efforts to capture the ephemeral "ghost plant." "I had pondered for a long time to send her a painting of something," Mabel wrote in her journal, "but when I came back I looked over my studies and by a sudden inspiration I dete...

  15. "preferred flower of life"

    In gratitude for the painting of the ghost flowers, Dickinson later sent this brief note and a poem. She wrote: "I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept a Humming Bird." The enclosed poem conjures the image of a colorful hummingbird flitting from one blossom to another: A Route of Evanescence A Resonance of Emerald - A Rush of Cochineal,

  16. Monotropa uniflora

    America's eminent poet, Emily Dickinson, called the Indian pipe "the preferred flower of life." In a letter to Mabel Todd, she confides, "I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child, and unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances the mystery, never decreases it." Poems. By Emily Dickinson

  17. Featured Creature: Ghost Pipes

    America's eminent poet, Emily Dickinson, called the Indian pipe "the preferred flower of life" and her first book of poetry features this plant on the cover.

  18. Emily Dickinson: Ghost Poems

    Of me, himself was shy; And God forbid I look behind. Since that appalling day! (Emily Dickinson's favorite flower was the ghostly Indian pipe, also known as the corpse plant. She drafted this poem on a fragment of ruled stationery paper in 1879; no other copy exists.) 'Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe -. 'Tis dimmer than a Lace -.

  19. Time and Eternity, Poem 29: Ghosts

    Time and Eternity, Poem 29: Ghosts Additional Information Year Published: 1896 Language: English Country of Origin: United States of America Source: Dickenson, E. (1896). The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two. Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers. Readability: Flesch-Kincaid Level: 6.6 Word Count: 88 Genre: Poetry

  20. Indian Pipes

    Cluster of six white ghost flowers ("Indian pipes") in a grassy bed. Painted over a black background with gold border.

  21. Monotropa uniflora

    Monotropa uniflora, also known as ghost plant, ghost pipe, or Indian pipe, is an herbaceous perennial flowering plant native to temperate regions of Asia, North America, and northern South America, but with large gaps between areas.

  22. The Marginalian (@themarginalian) on Flipboard

    The Poetic Science of the Ghost Pipe: Emily Dickinson and the Secret of Earth's Most Supernatural Flower. The Marginalian - Maria Popova. In the late autumn of 1890, four years after Emily Dickinson's death, her poems met the world for the first time in a handsome volume bound in white. Beneath the gilded title was a flower painting by ...

  23. EatTheWeeds: Episode 159: Ghost Pipes

    A short video on Monotropa uniflora, Ghost Pipes aka Indian Pipes. A related article is here: