The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc.

Plants of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden

The oldest public wildflower garden in the United States


Common Name
Indian Pipe (Ghost Plant, Ice Plant, Bird's Nest)


Scientific Name
Monotropa uniflora L.


Plant Family
Heath (Ericaceae)

Garden Location
Historical - 1909 - not extant


Prime Season
Late Summer to early Autumn



Indian Pipe is a native non-photosynthetic (achlorophyllous) plant that is a ‘heterotrophic’ - a plant that draws nourishment from the organic material in the soil. Stems are lacking, instead the flower stalks rise directly from the ground, erect, 4 to 8 inches tall; lacking chlorophyll they are waxy white in color becoming brown after maturity. Stalks may be single or multiple from the soil.

Leaves: Absent, other than scale-like with black flecks, on the flower stalk.

Inflorescence: An erect stalk, 4 to 8 inches high rising directly from the soil, bearing a single flower. With multiple stems, the flower heads usually all face the same direction.

Flowers: The single flower is initially pendant, then rising till it is almost perpendicular to the stalk when it is ready for pollination. Once fruit is formed the flower becomes fully erect. The flower is 1/2 to 3/4 inch long, and usually has 5 sepals but there may be 3 to 6. These are subtended by oblong bracts. Petals are shorter than the sepals and obscured from view by the outer sepals. They number 5 usually but there may be 3 to 6, usually whitish but can be pinkish to reddish. Petals have smooth margins, rounded tips with scattered hairs on the upper surfaces. There are 10 elongated nectary lobes, 8 to 14 stamens, with the nectary lobes curved around the stamen filament bases. Anthers are horizontal at flower maturity. The female stigma is funnelform and does not have a ring of hairs at the base.

Fruit: Flowers form an erect stout capsule that has 5 segments which persist after seed dispersal. The capsule can contain up to 100 small seeds which usually have a membranous wing for wind dispersion.


Habitat: Indian Pipe grows in woods and forests in rich humus soil, with moist to dry moisture conditions and adapts to altitudes up to 3000 meters. The root system consists of fleshy but fragile roots.

Names: The genus Monotropa is derived from two Greek words, monos, meaning 'one' and tropos, meaning 'turn' or 'direction', together referring to the flower heads all facing one direction. The species name uniflora, means 'one flowered.' The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. The family name, Ericaceae, includes plants as varied as the wintergreens and the blueberries. The Monotropas with their lack of chlorophyll, are placed in a separate subsection by some botanists - the Monotropoideae. You will find some references that treat that as a separate family - the Monotropaceae, but authorities such as Flora of North America do not accept the family separation.

Comparison: The most confusing species will be Monotropa hypopitys, Pinesap. There the inflorescence is usually a raceme, not a single flower; the sepals are dissimilar to the bracts, the petals may have a darker color in the reddish spectrum, the nectary lobes do not curve around the filament bases, the stigmas usually have a subtended ring of hairs, the fruiting capsule is thin and usually falls away after seed dispersal.

See bottom of page for notes on the Garden's planting history, distribution in Minnesota and North America, lore and other references.


Above: A dense stand of Indian Pipe with flowers in all 3 states - just emerged, at maturity, and forming seed heads.

Below: The flower stem has leaves reduced to small scales. The flower head in the upright position indicates the seed capsule is forming.

flower stem

Below: 1st photo - the sepals are subtended by small bracts. In between the sepals can be seen portions of the petals with scattered surface hair. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

Sepals drawing

Below: The flower head rises to a horizontal position when ready for pollination. The stigma is stout and funnelform with the stamens with their yellowish anthers surrounding it. After pollination (3rd photo) is becomes erect. 4th photo - Pinesap, the only other species of Monotropa in North America and Minnesota. Photo Aaron Carlson, Wisconsin Flora.

flower head flower inside vertical head image Pinesap


Eloise Butler did not include Indian Pipe on her 1907 Indigenous plant list, but brought it into the Garden on Sept. 4, 1909 from Malden MA. She then found it growing in the Garden in 1912, imported more plants in 1914 and 1915, then discovered another patch of it in 1916. In 1919 she brought in a clump from the vicinity of Lake of the Woods. More plantings were in 1922, '24, '28, '29, and '31. Martha Crone planted it in 1933. The species was still found in the Garden at the time of Martha's 1951 census.

In Minnesota Indian Pipe occurs in most of the counties of the northern 1/3 of the state and then down to the Iowa border in the eastern part of the state. Most absences are in the more dry SW quadrant. In North America Indian Pipe is found in all the lower Canadian Provinces and in most states of the U.S. except SD, CO, NM, AZ, UT, NV and WY.

The only other species of Monotropa found in North America, Pinesap, Monotropa hypopitys L., also occurs in Minnesota, but with fewer counties reporting it.

Medicinal Lore: Hutchins (Ref.#12) reports that the powdered root was regarded as an almost infallible remedy for fits in children. There were no dulling properties such as those that accompany the use of more narcotic remedies. Also the juice of the plant was considered a remedy for ulceration of the bladder. Other herbal practitioners report on other uses and effects.

References and site links

References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.

graphicIdentification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.