For those of you craving more current events commentary, here’s a news flash: Indian Pipe is blooming in the woods of southern New Hampshire.

Also known as Corpse Plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is one of my favorite late summer flowers. Although it’s not bright and colorful to look at, I’m always charmed by its ghostly appearance: small clusters of waxy white stalks stationed under trees or in the shelter of stone walls. More common than ghosts, Indian Pipe is just as difficult to photograph. Over the last week alone, I’ve taken a half dozen pictures of Indian Pipe–some at Goose Pond (above), and others at Pisgah State Park (right)–and the photo at right is the only one that does the plant justice. Because it flowers in late summer well after the forest canopy has closed, Indian Pipe lives in perpetual shadow. If you photograph a cluster of Indian Pipe with a flash, they look unnaturally wan against an overlit backdrop; if you forego the flash, you capture only unrecognizable blurs. The photo at right “works” because this average-sized cluster of Indian Pipe was sprouting by a spot of light which naturally illuminates its leaf-litter surroundings.

Since Indian Pipe lacks the green pigment chlorophyll, it cannot produce its own food from sunlight the way that other plants do. Most flower guides label Indian Pipe a saprophyte–a plant that lives off dead matter–but the reality is a bit more complicated. Indian Pipe not only lacks chlorophyll, it also lacks the enzymes and digestive “juices” that allow fungi to break down and digest dead wood. As a result, Indian Pipe relies upon certain species of fungus (in particular, those which produce Russula and Lactarius mushrooms), which in turn rely upon certain species of trees. In other words, Indian Pipe grows at the end of a parasitic chain, tapping its roots into the underground mycelial network of fungi that themselves tap into tree roots. The fungus takes nutrients from the tree, and the Indian Pipe takes nutrients from the fungus.

Because of this complicated way of getting a meal, Indian Pipe doesn’t grow just anywhere. It’s common at Goose Pond here in Keene and in the woods around Kilburn Pond in Pisgah State Park, but I haven’t (yet) seen it growing in the woods along the Ashuelot River. (Curiously, the Pickerelweed that is so abundant along the Ashuelot is all but entirely absent from both Goose and Kilburn Ponds.) Like springtime Lady’s Slippers, late summer Indian Pipe is choosy about where it plants its heels: here and now you’ll see it; then and there you won’t. Just like a ghost, Indian Pipe comes and goes of its own accord, almost invariably carrying an element of surprise within its ghostly white stems.