ghost pipe medicines

(It’s a little late for me to be writing a blog post, but I had two iced coffees with a shot of espresso each earlier at a local cafe, so you can thank my good friend, talented songstress, and favorite barista, Heather, in part for these late night musings….)

I’d seen ghost pipes (Monotropa uniflora) before and never gave them more than a few moments of my attention, but recently they have been capturing more and more of my awareness.  My husband spotted a small stand of them on a hike this week, and when he yelled ahead to me what he had found (I was powering ahead to try to get my heart rate up), I shrieked “ghost pipes!” and wasted no time doubling back on the trail to catch a glimpse of these ethereal understory plants.  This was the first of three clusters of ghost pipes we saw that morning on the trail.

good thing i keep my phone in my bra when i'm hiking.  (i know, i know... not a good habit).
good thing i keep my phone in my bra when i’m hiking. (i know, i know… not a good habit).

I imagine them to be miniature periscopes operated by tiny subterranean creatures who wear pointy homespun hats and rustic patchwork leather slippers.

 When we got home from the hike, Jeremy said he knew where there were several patches of them close together.  He had seen them at a neighbor’s house.  (Uh, and you haven’t told me until now WHY?)  I had seen a post the day before in a plant identification forum on the medicinal uses of ghost pipe, and was excited to gather some for an experimental tincture and flower essence.  I gathered up a basket of supplies (jars, water, Everclear, clippers, and my offering bag), and we got permission from the neighbor to gather some of her ghost pipe.  I wanted to tincture them on the spot because I read that they deteriorate very quickly after harvesting.

making the flower essence on site.  a woodland apothecary of sorts.
making the flower essence on site. a woodland apothecary of sorts.

I let the flower essence sit out under the waning gibbous moon that night and preserved it the next morning with alcohol.  I am excited for the right time to arise to experiment with this essence.  The tincture, however, is a completely different creature.  After 24 hours in the menstruum, it looks like this:

curiouser and curiouser...
curiouser and curiouser…

It went from perfectly clear to this mysterious dark purple, almost black color.  How does a plant with no pigment extract this color?  Several times today I was drawn to the jar to try to take in its secrets.  I know that the plant itself has a relationship between mycelium and trees, not requiring sunlight to grow.  Maybe this dramatic shift from light to dark is a signature of its role as intermediary between realms: horizontal (mycelial) and vertical (arboreal), earth and sky, panic and calm, physical and spiritual.  It is used in herbal medicine in acute situations to treat overwhelming physical and emotional pain to bring someone “back down to earth.”  It’s no wonder that it has grounding qualities, given its growth habit.

I will refer to you this article from the American Herbalists Guild website for further reading on the use of ghost pipes.

A word about ethical wildcrafting: I want to impress upon you that this is a RARE plant and you absolutely MUST use ethical wildcrafting practices if you are going to make this medicine.  Know that you have permission to gather the plant first, and only gather 10% of the plants you see.  Ghost pipes are easy to miss in the woods if you’re not looking for them. They do not grow in such great abundance and are not easily propagated like some of our other wild medicinals (yarrow, echinacea). They must be treated with great respect and mindfully and ethically wildcrafted. The ghost pipes I wildcrafted for this tincture were NOT pulled out by the roots, rather cut above the ground level so that a patch will grow in the same spot next year.  This is a tincture I make in small quantities because of its delicate habitat and because it is a LOW DOSE BOTANICAL (meaning it has the potential for toxicity if you are being careless).

Here’s a bonus photo from my hike that day that elicited an equally excited shriek as when we came across the ghost pipes…

why miss prunella, you sure are stunning in white.
why miss prunella, you sure are stunning in white.

WHITE SELF HEAL.  I mean, have you ever?!  You can see the more common purple color on other plants in the background, but I had no idea that Prunella vulgaris ever put off white flowers.  I’ve walked this trail many times, and I see something new every trip.  The woods really is a magical place if you’re willing to receive it.

On this day in 1890, J.H. Keim writes, “Clear and pleasant.  Grandpap finished mowing in the field north of barn.  The boys and I cleaned stables and got a load of leaves cleaned of the market wagon…Then we hauled 6 loads of hay.  We finished the hay this eavening.”

On this day in 1938, Miriam Keim writes, “A very hot sultry rainy day.  We got up rather early and got our morning work done till the Ashe’s came to take us fishing, 1st time in many a year.  Went to Everhart’s dam, then to Kurtz’s dam, then to quarry hole at Sancanac.  Had our dinner together and a very nice time.  We took Richard Fisher with us. Home at 4:30, evening at home.  Very tired.”

From a list of “Some water uses well to remember”, unknown author… “Hot water taken freely a half hour before bedtime is an excellent cathartic in the case of constipation, also for headache and dyspepsia.”

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