Lessons on Stewardship: Chinquapins, Chiggers, and Indian Pipes

by Ruth Davis

Plants are often introduced into my garden by a share from a friend. Sometimes it is only a fond memory shared that sends me on a search for the plant itself. This is the case with the chinquapins. My mother spent her childhood in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and talked so often about the abundance of the delicious nuts from these scrappy relatives of chestnuts. So, as a memorial, a few years ago, I began a quest to establish them in my garden. The first transplants from a southern Virginia nursery failed, but a second planting had survived two winters and were growing!

On a beautiful early summer afternoon, I made my way to check on the very first, very eagerly awaited chinquapin nuts. Surely, their willingness to fruit meant they were content in their suburban Maryland location under a small grove of white pines, and I was very pleased. Smiling on the path out, a bit of gleaming white caught my eye. Kneeling down to examine this 4” wonder, I met for the first time an intriguing and very unusual plant—Monotropa uniflora, commonly called Indian pipes or ghost plant.

Soon I was back at my computer researching and learning from others about this queer and clever plant. But what I most want to share with you is what the plant taught me firsthand, and it was not a pleasant lesson.

Starting with Google Images, I was able to find the plant’s identity, and then went searching for more information. Ghost pipes are unusual in appearance, in method of survival, and in relationships with humans. I found many essays, comments, photos, and even a Facebook group. After reading and digesting what others had to say, I began to feel quite uneasy that ghost pipes were about to become the newest “rock star” of the herbal world and face danger of overharvesting.

Monotropa uniflora is a mycotrophic plant, meaning that it exists by tapping into the mycorrhizal network, obtaining nutrients thought this mutualistic relationship between fungi and plant roots. It does not photosynthesize nor contain chlorophyll. It can neither be transplanted nor propagated. The simple fact of their uniqueness seemed to make people want to harvest ghost pipes with abandon, not pausing to question the need of the human, nor the survival of the plant. Mostly the “otherworldliness” attributed to this plant seemed to be the draw, even with warnings that its magic and mystique were powerful forces. Soon I had confirmation that the warnings and my fears were real.

The next morning after my first encounter, I took my husband out to see the chinquapin nuts, stopping also to wonder about the pipes. We talked a bit about my research, the unearthly quality of the plant, and why it might have popped up just there and just then. We agreed that we had never encountered anything remotely akin to this Being; we agreed that the plant should be left in place, protected and watched without harm—that is, without harm to the pipes.

Later that day we both started to itch. Ferociously. After comparing symptoms and going back to Google, it appeared that we were the victims of chiggers. Seriously? We had not even been away from our house for a few days? It became apparent that we had been only one place outdoors together where we might have encountered the chiggers—at the locations of the chinquapins and the ghost pipes.

Not in 50 plus years of exploring and enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer had I succumbed to this plague. My husband had also spent years as a Boy Scout and enjoyed camping and hiking as I had, and he also had never seen this form of torture. During the following several weeks of nearly constant application of anything we could think of to stop the itch, we talked a lot about why the chiggers hit when they did. I am a “get down in the dirt” kind of gardener and have knelt, sat, and sometimes crawled all over this property that we tend. I feel certain that this was a call from the ghost pipes. I had already felt unease through my readings, and it seemed that the chiggers were a very deliberate warning that the pipes should be left alone. I complied.

Later in the season, we found another little stand of ghost pipes about 5 yards from the first. Again, we watched with respect and admiration, but from a distance. The information that I learned about this marvelous plant will be shared later—again with a caution toward harvesting respectfully, only if necessary, and if invited. Maybe they will call to me for use in the future. For now, however, my goal is to have spoken on their behalf, reminding others that we have a duty to act thoughtfully and prudently in our interactions with the plant world, preserving and protecting where we can. Likewise, I hope to share more thoughts in a future article on the chinquapins and the chiggers as they were also a big part of this lesson.

Originally published in The Essential Herbal Magazine www.essentialherbal.com

Ruth Davis is a student of nature and a household herbalist in Bowie, Maryland. Grateful for the generous teachings of the plants and the humans who speak for them – historic and contemporary – she is eager to continue the sharing of knowledge at every opportunity. Reach her at ruthdavis@aol.com.