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.
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.
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
- 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.