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On Ghost pipe and respect

Ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora) has received a lot of attention on the blogosphere in recent years. As a mycoheterotroph (takes nutrients from both trees and fungi) it does not photosynthesize, giving it a ghostly, ethereal white appearance. It’s simply breathtaking.

It’s lovely to photograph and share on social media. Yes, the tincture is a breathtakingly beautiful violet color. Yes, it is effective as an analgesic and anxiolytic herb. But it’s become too popular, and stands are disappearing. It’s being misused.

Ghost pipe is currently (kind of, maybe-ish, sort of) abundant in a few places. But it is rare in most places. In fact, many herbalists and naturalists are noticing that stands are quickly disappearing (likely due to drought conditions). I personally see far less Ghost pipe now than in years past. It cannot be cultivated, and we know little of its reproduction.

Simply too many people are using and popularizing Ghost pipe. Someone recently posted a photo of Ghost pipe on an herbal medicine group on social media with the caption, “I found this in my yard today, what do I do with it?”

Not that kind of plant

Ghost pipe isn’t this kind of plant. “I found this, what should I do with it?” is a question you ask of dandelion, California poppy, lemon balm, St. John’s wort, motherwort. Not a rare uncultivatable plant! It has been popularized beyond what the ecosystem can reasonably sustain. I heard of a commerical picker offering a buyer 50lbs. of the plant. Fifty pounds!! United Plant Savers will be assessing its ecological status and consider listing it as an at-risk species. But we don’t have to wait until then to exercise caution and respect. (In fact, we really shouldn’t.)

Ghost pipe serves a unique ecological function…just like all plants. This plant doesn’t exist to serve us. I posted a cautionary message on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. In response, someone commented to let all the commenters know that they can purchase ghost pipe tincture from her. See what’s wrong here?

I have also seen a number of instagram photos of harvested Ghost pipe with roots. For the record, there is never a need to get the roots. This destroys the plant. There’s a problem here.

A spiritual relationship with a plant does not give you permission to do whatever you want

Later, someone posted another instagram photo of a handful of Ghost pipe. A commenter questioned the post, to which they replied (paraphrasing), “I have a spiritual connection with this plant and I was called to gather it.”

Look, spiritual connections are incredibly important and valuable in healing work. They are not, however, a cop out and it does not grant permission to do whatever you like. “But the plant told me/the plant called me” sounds more like ego than authentic connection. Again, I’m not dismissing spiritual connection. But don’t conflate it with ego.

I have personally never harvested Ghost pipe, nor have I needed to. I have met my client’s needs with other more commonly available herbs, like the ones listed below.

Pain

  • California poppy
  • Kava
  • Jamaican dogwood

Anxiety

  • Kava
  • Hops
  • Motherwort
  • Skullcap
  • Lemon balm
  • Blue vervain

I too am enamoured and moved by Ghost pipe. So I leave it in its habitat to continue its life. I sit with it, photograph it, and take in everything it has to offer. There’s more magic there than having it ground up in alcohol on my apothecary shelf.

Howie Brounstein said, “It’s easier to gather plants than to not gather them.”

Sean Donahue recently posted on the same subject, and this passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

I understand why knowledge of a plant like Ghost Pipe spreads like wildfire. We live in a time when people feel cut off from the living world, and finding out about a strange, beautiful plant that taps into the mind of an entire forest brings a stir of recognition of the kind of connection the deepest parts of ourselves know is possible, even when we so seldom experience it in our lives and our worlds.

And I understand why so many feel the need to harvest the plant for themselves or buy the tincture from someone else. We live in a culture that has objectified and commodified everything. And in which the sense of our entitlement is magnified and the sense of our impact on the living world is diminished — my own included, or I wouldn’t be here writing this mea culpa. It can seem like the only way to access the magic Ghost Pipe represents to us is to hold something made of the body through which that magic moves.

I am not saying nobody should use Ghost Pipe as medicine. I am saying it should be used only when no other medicine will do, by people with enough knowledge to know that no other medicine will do, who have also cultivated a deep relationship with the plant.

Ethics and ego

We are stewards of the earth, and we live in the most integrity when we are protectors of these plants, not vehicles of their exploitation. If we don’t have ethics and integrity, we have nothing.

Don’t let ego rule your herb choices and media output. Don’t participate in Ghost pipe porn.

Herbal medicine is not about stocking our cabinets with the fanciest, rarest and most prized herbs. Herbal medicine is about ethics, and promoting healing not only in our human and ecological communities.

We owe at least that much. Wouldn’t you agree?

27 Comments Post a comment
  1. fancy #

    yes! this! thank you!

    August 3, 2016
  2. Deb #

    Very perfect. Ghost Pipe was the only plant to tell me no. Many times. I had to wait to find a couple of solid patches to get 8 plants which I used to make a flower essence and a 4 ounce jar with the solid material and alcohol. That was two years ago and I haven’t had any since. I absolutely respect this magical being. I can’t even fathom 50 pounds. That is criminal. Thank you for this article. <3

    August 3, 2016
  3. Louise #

    Well said. Thank you.

    August 3, 2016
  4. Kohpala #

    Excellent and critical information on this most Sacred mycho! As an herbalist myself, I’ll help spread this info. Never have seen Ghost Pipe ibn my areas, for a reason, I’m sure. Preserving tree and endangered species and using abundant alternatives is a practice I uphold fit myself abed preach. THANK YOU

    August 3, 2016
  5. Cheyenne #

    I was just out in the woods last weekend and I seen an abundance of this ghost pipe stuff now I didn’t touch it I left it be but at the time I didn’t know what it was I thought it was breathtaking but I didn’t pick it I am glad now that I left it alone I’m not going to say where I was because this being such a rare plant I don’t want someone to go out there and try to gather all of it but thank you for writing this article it was very informative

    August 3, 2016
  6. Ginny Lane #

    Thank you for this! This is one of the first plants I learned as a young child. I was taught not to touch their fragile stalks and grew up holding them in reverence and awe. I’ve felt conflicted about using them as medicine and never have myself. It seems like yet another example of our culture of entitlement. Something for all herbalists and indeed all of us to reflect upon.

    August 3, 2016
  7. Jessica #

    To my great surprise I had a small patch of ghost pipe spring up in the my yard recently. I am so stoked to foster it and watch it grow. I have been fascinated by ghost pipe ever since my first encounter with it. I had no idea that it had medicinal properties. Thank you for this article I will do my best to care for the ghost pipe in my yard after having read this; and by care I mean I will stay out of it way and let it do what it naturally does aside from snapping a few photos and maybe talking to it once in awhile

    August 3, 2016
  8. Kali #

    If one is strongly called to use a rare plant like this I recommend using a flower essence. Flower essences are an excellent way of receiving the plants medicine while honoring its growth since so little material is required to make a large quantity of essence.

    August 3, 2016
  9. I am so happy that you wrote this, I saw the photo that you mentioned and the thread on Instagram. I have been seeing way too much of these types of photos lately, taken by young “herbalists” that are so excited for a photo op that they can’t begin to be respectful.

    August 5, 2016
  10. Bettie #

    When an herbalist or wildcrafter is moral and ethical in their harvesting of these gifts there is no problem. Unfortunately many forage with no thought other than profit and/or ego. Chaga is being radically harvested, sold and used in ways that do not physically benefit the user.
    Thank you for this article, may we all find good teachers.

    August 9, 2016
  11. Miss j. #

    I saw several clusters of this pure white lovely out camping . I didn’t know what it was , if it was poisonus or good or rare. Now I know. Didn’t pluck or stomp I just ganderd at it never saw such a plant. And let it be .thanks you for the post. If I see it again I can tell about it.

    August 14, 2016
  12. Anne #

    I grew up calling it Indian pipes. It grows near Beech Trees in established forests. It has no medicinal usr. Please do not harvest. Enjoy it for it’s amazing properties as a living organism. The have a moment each year, the are gond tilk the next.

    August 14, 2016
  13. This isn’t a plant that grows in my location (the UK) so it’s not one I’m likely to encounter in the real world. But I am pleased to encounter it here, and that you’re recommending that people don’t abuse this rare and wonderful plant! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    August 19, 2016
  14. Thank you for sharing this. the rising interest in herbal medicine has led to the overharvesting of many wild plants, to the detriment of us all. As you noted, there are many abundant and common plants that may be used instead.

    August 27, 2016
  15. Mairin #

    I work in landscaping, and found some broken off and trampled underneath one of the tarps my coworkers were using, so I did indeed take the ones that were fully ruptured( and tried to salvage what was possible, there were other patches in the area that we were careful of too), dried and made a tincture, approximately one ounce of finished tincture. I do have anxiety and pain disorders that I would be glad to use this once in a while, how should I use?
    Also, where I live I’ve seen it quite a bit, I hope it stays that way, once chagga caught on its all but gone now.
    Thank you for a great article that I have taken to heart 🙂

    August 30, 2016
  16. Shelby Register #

    Thank you for sharing this. As an environmental educator, I teach people about foraging but also about sustainability and responsible foraging. Ghost Pipe is on my list of “look, but do not touch.” It falls under the “leave no trace” category of my teaching. I will be sharing this on our page.

    September 1, 2016
  17. Jeanne Clark #

    Greetings everyone. Being new to ghost plant, the first time I saw it was this year while out mushrooming I collected one plant by cutting not taking the roots. After reading the article as well as the responses. I had first a feeling, who can regulate the person who is out picking for their personal use and why would you want to? Secondly I had a question. What about the millions upon millions of acres that are stripped every year for building homes, office buildings etc, etc? It would seem to me that is where the problem would lie concerning the eradication of Ghost Pipe.

    October 4, 2016
    • Renee Davis #

      Hi Jeanna, thank you for your comment. Unless I’m mistaken I do not recall promoting regulation in my post. I am appealing to the ethics and integrity of wild crafters. I am not saying “never use it,” but am instead urging caution and respect for this plant and calling on the community to have awareness about its ecological status.

      And certainly, there are many other things threatening our ecosystems. We should be aware and act on these things. But this isn’t an either/or issue- we can be aware of the larger, systemic issues, while cultivating thoughtful use on our end too. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

      October 5, 2016
  18. Jeanne #

    Fair enough.

    October 6, 2016
  19. Cheryl Shocklee #

    BRAVO!

    November 6, 2016
  20. Melanie #

    Beautifully written. I won’t go on and on about my relationship with Ghost pipe, however just know that I agree with what you have shed light on. During a particularly difficult moment in my life, a miscarriage, this plant which I deeply respect helped me through it by allowing me to become a true observer in every sense of the word. The pain was still present, but it was as if I became unattached to it and I was able to ride the waves of emotions and physical sensations with great ease. I truly believe that no other plant would have been able to guide me through this experience the way Ghost pipe did.

    December 5, 2016
  21. Joni Moore #

    Thank you! This is a very valuable post!! Very well said!

    March 1, 2017
  22. Jim Scheff #

    Yes. Thank you.

    July 16, 2017
  23. Padme A'TEa (Lyn Gilbert_ #

    Dear Heart: some years ago I was in a beautiful Woods and I found a plant that I would have loved to steward for an Essence. However, I was receiving guidance to take care – it was the only plant in the immediate area and I had concerns as to using it for an essence. When I got back to the apartment and got online, I ID’ed the plant and found that some species are protected. The following day I went back to the Woods and sat down to communicate to the plant. I asked if I could birth the Essence virtually and I received an agreement so I prepared the Essence. A few weeks later, more of the plant was growing so abundantly and I was so thank-full I heard the plant’s guidance and followed it. We have to put our egos aside when we work with the Forest and Woodland Kindred…

    Your post is thought-full and very well written. Thank you for sharing this necessary Wisdom.

    All Love,
    Padme A’Tea

    July 22, 2017
  24. Amanda #

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon this article. I was looking at uses for ghost pipe, as we have found massive groups of it growing in the woods near my house. I will definitely be leaving it alone, and instructing my children to do so as well. Blessed be.

    July 23, 2017
  25. Greedy and thoughtless people are everywhere, in every community. But I have to say in my recent mycological travels to the NE (I live in CA, where Monotropa really is rare), I was seeing ghost plant aka Monotropa uniflora everywhere!

    I didn’t even think of picking it, even tho it parasitizes my beloved fungi!

    The world does not belong to us; we belong to the world.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    August 20, 2017
  26. In Summer 2016 I went to NY to visit “family” and we went to the Aidirondaks. There, I found this plant, not knowing its history, along with a small orange fungi growing out of the end/beginning of a stick and a tri-colored leaf, I picked them all up together and took a picture of their wonder, ignorantly as my 21 year old kid-self.

    I put the flower in my diary, and then sought to look it up. I had been recently infatuated with the Indigenous culture struggle, as I was watching the house of a native woman while she was in Standing Rock at the time. I felt their spirituality, along with buddhist-tao, as closest to any spirituality I had ever been exposed to, particulary how they/we honor relationships with nature.

    Somehow, the flower dissapeared from my diary, except for one petal. During a psychosis I was having, while learning new languages as they were speaking in my head like crazy, and people of the languages were coming into my life in reality as well. I realized, as I opened the diary to that page, that I had violated a peace by picking the flower, without knowing. Feeling a great guilt, perhaps due to the karma wishing to belong…. wishing I had never left standing rock, but i could not support them in the way i wish i could, being a nearly homeless and poor student, also of the white culture, i needed to learn this lesson that i tell now- in short.

    I greatly appreciate this post. There is a magic in being able to not gather the plants, to allow ourselves to defeat our natural instinct, in that nature can continue its own instincts- the silly duality of life, so beautifully represented in the existence of this flowgi…. From white down, to black up, duality teaches us to observe and exist at the same time.

    I love you soul sister

    ~Athena Rose

    November 5, 2017

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