Common Names: Indian Pipe, Ghost Pipe, Fairy Smoke, Ice Plant, Corpse Plant, Birds' Nest, Fit Plant, Convulsion Root7
Energetics: Cold, Relaxing
Herbal Actions: Nervine, Antispasmodic/Anticonvulsive, Diaphoretic
Flower Essence Indications: "Expanding awareness of the presence of universal love; [ . . .] seeing and feeling the love in every moment." -- David Dalton
I felt myself beginning to get sucked into the existential whirlpool of panic that has a way of pulling me down into debilitating depression. So I went into the woods.
A short way up the trail, I stopped and sat down in the cradle of the roots of a very old White Pine. Leaning back against the trunk, I began to feel grief and fear and its companion, doubt well up, overwhelming me. Where did I belong in this world? What was my work? What if my life amounts to nothing?
At the edge of panic, I opened my eyes, and about fifteen feet away from me saw the othreworldly white stalk and bell-shaped flower of Ghost Pipe. Just two days earlier, I had scoured the forest and Ghost Pipe was nowhere to be found. I felt a cool euphoria spread from the center of my chest throughout my body.
I walked over to the plant and knelt down and offered Tobacco. and soon saw that there were clusters of Ghost Pipe spread out all around me throughout the forest. The plant sang to me:
Pray for the medicine and it will come,Grateful to the point of tears, I began gathering the stems and flowers of the plant. Walking deeper and deeper into the forest, I felt my panic subside, my grief dissipate, and my doubt disappear.
pray for the medicine you must become.
And it struck me that that's the essence of Ghost Pipe's medicine: its the medicine that pulls you back from the edge.
(Of course, in the process I got incredibly lost in woods I thought I knew well, and found my way home after three hours that felt like 45 minutes -- the price of the kind of clarity a medicine like this brings often involves the loss of bearings in space and time. That truth is as old as the oldest stories of Faery.)
Exaggerated claims of toxicity
Before going further I want to address the sudden panic some of my readers might have had when they read that I was gathering the stems and flowers of Ghost Pipe.
Going back to the late nineteenth century, herbals and field guides have routinely warned that the stems and flowers of the plant are toxic and that only the roots can be safely used.
But the only recorded case I have been able to find of a significant adverse reaction attributed to the plant is one from the late nineteenth century involving a woman who had handled but not ingested the plant and then developed a rash. The author of the account, A. H. Young, had consulted a physician after seeing the woman and hearing her story, and the physician had concluded based on his description of the symptoms that she had probably come into contact with Poison Ivy (Rhus toxicodendron). Young insisted this was impossible based solely on the fact that the woman claimed "that she was not susceptible to Rhus poison."
Despite the fact that there is no clinical evidence of Ghost Pipe ever having caused any more serious poisonings, many insist that it is potentially deadly because the plant contains a glycoside called andromedotoxin, and people have become seriously ill from consuming honey made by bees that have pollinated other plants containing the same compound.
Yet the aerial parts of the plant were traditionally used internally by the Cree and the Mohegan.
And a number of contemporary herbalists have worked with the aerial parts as well. Ryan Drum reports eating an "ounce or more of the young flowers and stalks" and feeling only "slightly nauseous." And I know several herbalists who have been working with the whole plant tincture for years.
As any herbalist knows, a plant is more than the sum of its chemical parts, and the mere presence of a potentially toxic constituent does not a poison make.
The first time I harvested the plant, I gathered and tinctured only the aerial parts. After reading and learning more, I set that batch aside and made a new one, using the entire plant. When I ran out of the whole plant tincture, I decided to experiment with the tincture made from the aerial parts only, and I found its actions identical to those of the whole plant tincture. I gave some to another clinical herbalist to experiment with and she found the same thing.
So now I spare the roots, taking a few stems and flowers from any given cluster of Ghost Pipe in hopes of leaving a viable cluster behind.
So, having dealt with the issue of toxicity, lets move on first to the ecology and then to the medicine of the plant.
Physical and Spritual Ecology
Ghost Pipe is a plant without chlorophyll that obtains water, nutrients, and carbon dioxide by tapping into the symbiotic mycorrhizal networks of the plants and fungi of the forest.
From a strictly materialistic standpoint this appears to be a purely parasitic relationship.
My own belief is that there is no such thing as pure parasitism.
Ghost Pipe to me is the distillation of the consciousness of the forest -- of the deep peace that comes from complete integration in the cycles of birth and death to the point where the distinction ceases to have meaning. Simultaneously, it is a watcher at the edge, taking in all it perceives without judgment and feeding information back into the mycelial networks that form the nervous system of the forest.
As such, it also seems to have an affinity for other liminal spaces as well -- especially the borders between life and death and embodiment and disembodiment.
My first encounter with Ghost Pipe two summers ago along a dirt road in Sumner, ME illustrates this.
Finding the ghostly plant by the side of the road, I got down on my knees to inspect it more closely. The flowers smelled of pickling vinegar. The stem seemed a tunnel to the world beneath the forest floor.
I felt my breath slow and deepen and a cool, mild euphoria come in through my chest and move up and down along my spine, radiating throughout my body. I smelled and felt rich, moist forest soils.
The plant told me to put one of his flowers in my mouth. I chewed on it for several minutes, and felt a tingling in my mouth. I spit it out and stood up slowly.
I was very clearly in another state of consciousness. I was acutely aware of the forest around me -- especially of the vast interwoven network of roots beneath the surface, and the communication across them.
I began walking down the road, deeply grateful for the worlds Monotropa was opening to me.
About fifteen minutes later I became very hot and began sweating profusely.
It occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about the flowers of this plant and that I might have poisoned myself.
And I began to imagine my death I knew that I had a four or five mile walk home down roads that don't see much traffic. I imagined collapsing and rolling down the bank and then rotting into the forest floor, becoming food for the life around me. And I felt completely at peace with that possibility.
And at the same time, I was acutely aware of work I wanted to do in the world, of experiences I wanted to have. So I began negotiating with Monotropa, saying that I wanted to go back into the world to be a voice for the forest.
The whole experience felt like a kind of initiation -- and I was left with the understanding that anyone doing healing work needs to become comfortable in the space between life and death.
Several people I've shared Ghost Pipe with have had similar experiences, suggesting that this is one aspect of the plant's medicine that presents itself in the right time and place.
Putting the pain beside you
It comes as no surprise, then that Ghost Pipe is a medicine most known for its action on the nervous system -- and particularly the ways our bodies deal with sensory information.
In its physical form, Ghost Pipe resembles a spinal column and a brain stem.
And one of the gifts Ghost Pipe offers is its ability to keep us from being overwhelmed by pain.
In the 1898 edition of King's American Dispensatory, Eclectic physicians, Harvey Wickes Felter and John Uri Lloyd noted that the powdered root could be used "as a substitute for opium, without any deleterious influences."
Tommy Priester, the herbalist who introduced me to Ghost Pipe, told me that he uses the tincture to help people in excruciating physical pain put the pain "beside them" -- they remain intellectually aware that the pain is there, but don't feel its overwhelming sensation. He works with the tincture of the whole plant, and told me that with the first dose you give someone 3 drops and see if that works. If 3 drops don't help, 5 or 10 won't, so you jump right up to a 30 drop dose. I have found similar effects with the same dosages of the tincture of the aerial parts.
My current theory is that the medicine works with the sensory gating channels -- limiting the amount of information processed as sensation, but allowing the information the brain needs to assess the situation to pass through.
I see the medicine as having potential in helping people come off addictive opiate pain-killers.
Putting your problems outside you where you can see and work on them
Of course, our bodies use the same mechanisms to process both emotional and physical pain and fear.
Last summer, when I first began working with Ghost Pipe, I told a lot of my friends about the amazing ways this plant could help people deal with pain. So my friend S. made a batch of her own tincture.
Our mutual friend, C. was visiting S. when he received some emotionally devastating news. He began having a panic attack. When S. walked in and saw him doubled over, she asked him what was wrong, and the only words that he could utter were "The pain! The pain!" She assumed he was in physical pain and gave him a dropperful of Ghost Pipe tincture.
C. said that the medicine helped him put his worries and problems outside of himself where he could look at them and work with them without feeling their full emotional impact.
C. came to visit the next day and told me the story. I told him about what Ghost Pipe does for physical pain, and said that his experience told me that it does the same for emotional pain. I gave him a formula of nourishing nervines and adaptogens to help him deal with chronic anxiety, but suggested that since Ghost Pipe was working so well for him, he should continue using it for acute panic attacks.
A month or two later, I ran into C. and asked him how the herbs were working for him. He told me that he had continued using Ghost Pipe whenever he felt anxiety coming on for several weeks after that first incident. Then one day he went to reach for the tincture, and he heard the plant telling him he didn't need the tincture anymore. He managed to call up the memory of the frame of mind the medicine put him in and put his worries outside him by himself. The plant had taught him a new means of dealing with pain and terror.
Since then, I have given the plant to a number of people dealing with acute anxiety attacks. All have had great results with it, though none have gone through quite the transformation that C. did. Sometimes the right plant is just the right teacher for a particular person at a particular time.
I have also begun experimenting with using the plant in combination with Holy Basil for trauma survivors in situations where their memories of trauma are being triggered. Early results are promising.
"Bad Trips" and Vitus Dance
In addition to helping people put their physical and emotional pain outside their bodies, Ghost Pipe can help bring people back into their bodies.
Part of my practice involves doing first aid work at festivals where a lot of people are under the influence of a lot of different mind-altering chemicals.
I always end up dealing with men in their late teens or early twenties who are having their first experiences with LSD, find old traumas triggered, and become agitated and disruptive.
When I first began researching Ghost Pipe, I came across Ryan Drum's account of using the medicine to help sedate a man who was having a psychotic episode.
Based on that account, and based on my own theory that psychedelics work in part by opening the sensory gating channels to a degree we don't normally experience, I decided to start using Ghost Pipe in these cases.
In every such case where I have used it, a 30 drop dose of Ghost Pipe has rapidly worked to slow the onslaught of sensory information coming into the subject's brain. Pupil dilation and response to external stimuli change in matter of minutes.
In most cases, the men in question either become calm and coherent, or fall asleep quickly and wake up hours later, calm and coherent.
In a few cases I've witnessed though, the LSD had brought underlying issues to a head, and the men found themselves experiencing what a shamanic practitioner would call spirit possession and a psychiatrist would call a dissociative episode. In these cases, physical cues told us that the drug was no longer acting on the brain, but disturbing behaviors continued -- in one case "speaking in tongues," in others, physical violence and endless shouting of threats and profanities.
In the cases where these men were physically violent, the phrases they kept repeating suggested they were remembering childhood sexual abuse -- an experience with up-regulates norepinephrine. We also later learned that all of these men were on Adderall. My working hypothesis is that their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused them to act in ways that led them to be misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperacticity Disorder. LSD made them more susceptible to having their repressed memories triggered, and the stimulation of Adderall coupled with the sensory overload of the LSD experience pushed them into a fearful and violent state.
In cases like these, further measures are necessary, and those fall outside the scope of the article.
An interesting side note -- Ghost Pipe was used widely in New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to treat a condition called "Vitus Dance" -- that involved spasms and convulsions often attributed to divine or demonic possession. Most of these cases were likely rheumatic fever, and here Ghost Pipe's traditional uses as an anticovulsive/antispasmodic and as a diaphoretic likely came into play. But in some cases Vitus Dance was likely an effect of Ergot poisoning -- Ergot is a fungus that grows on Rye that can causes hallucinations and convulsions when ingested. Ergot is also the source of Ergotamine, the chemical from which Albert Hoffman derived and synthesized LSD.
Its also worth noting that St. Vitus is the patron saint of mushrooms.
Perhaps early New England root doctors were using Ghost Pipe for the same indications for which I now administer it at the festivals?
Various and sundry other medicinal uses
David Winston notes that Ghost Pipe is a diaphoretic and was traditionally used by the Cherokee for fevers accompanied by pain and for febrile seizures. I've not used the plant this way before, but after eating the flowers I have certainly felt its profound diaphoretic effect.
The juice of the fresh plant has traditionally been used as a remedy for inflamed eyes, sometimes combined with Rose water. Earlier today I crushed a flower onto my closed, inflamed eye and rubbed in the juice and felt rapid relief. Jean Auel made this use famous in her novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear.
Lloyd and Felter note that the juice combined with Rosewater can be used to treat "inflammation and ulceration of the bladder." I've not explored this possible use yet, but may soon, as it explained why I got an intuitive hit on Ghost Pipe when I was wondering what plant to use for the people I've been seeing at the festivals who are having bladder problems from Ketamine use. Prolonged recreational use of this horse tranquilizer can lead to inflammation and scarification of the bladder -- and eventual bladder failure. (Of course another important part of the therapy may involve pointing out that it is difficult to dance with a urinary catheter.)
I associate the medicine of Ghost Pipe strongly with Obatala -- an Orisha of the Ifa, Santeria, Voudun, and Hoodoo traditions who is cloaked in white and helps to "cool the head," bringing calmness and clear judgment to those who work with him.
Ghost Pipe also clearly has a strong association with the Fey, given its association with the boundary between worlds. Fairy Smoke is one common name for the plant, a name likely given by Scotch-Irish people in Appalachia who would have afforded such a name to a plant with great care, noting its connection to otherworldly states of consciousness.
Photo by Darcey Blue French