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:

  1. Pack plant tightly into a pint canning jar filling to top.
  2. Add 100 proof vodka, filling jar to the top
  3. Shake daily for 2 weeks.
  4. 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


50 thoughts on “Ghost Pipe: A Hauntingly Rare Plant for Physical and Emotional Pain

    • 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


      • 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?


  1. 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



  2. 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,


  3. 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


  4. 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


  5. 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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  9. 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!!!!


  10. 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.


  11. 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?

    Thank you!


      • 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.


  12. 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!


  13. 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.


  14. 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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  16. 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


    • 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 😉


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


  18. 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!


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