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.
- California poppy
- Jamaican dogwood
- 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?