I took along my new macro lens on my recent trip to Arizona and was overwhelmed by the number of flowers still blooming. Here’s a handful of some of the more than a dozen photos I took. The remainder can be found here: Macro Flowers
In shining groups, each stem a pearly ray,
Weird flecks of light within the shadowed wood,
They dwell aloof, a spotless sisterhood.
No Angelus, except the wild bird’s lay,
Awakes these forest nuns; yet night and day
Their heads are bent, as if in prayerful mood.
A touch will mar their snow, and tempests rude
Defile; but in the mist fresh blossoms stray
From spirit-gardens just beyond our ken.
Each year we seek their virgin haunts, to look
Upon new loveliness, and watch again
Their shy devotions near the singing brook;
Then, mingling in the dizzy stir of men,
Forget the vows made in that cloistered nook.
~~Mary Thacher Higgenson
This ode to the Indian Pipe, also known as Corpse plant, Death plant, Ice plant, Ghost flower, Bird’s nest, Fairy smoke, Eyebright, Fit plant and Convulsion root, was penned by Mary Higgenson. The second wife of the noted Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higgenson, who commanded the first regiment of freed slaves in the Civil War, Mary thought so much of the plant that she wrote the poem “Ghost Flowers” in tribute to their pallid beauty.
The generic name for this truly unique plant is Monotropa uniflora. The name comes from the Greek mono meaning one and tropos meaning turning which, according to one interpretation, was assigned to the plant to characterize the initial downward-turning of the flowers that only turn upwards once the seeds are fertilized. Two other interpretations of “one turning” are that the flower has a single turn and that the flowers all turn to one side. The singular flower on each stem is the reason for the species name, uniflora, which is Latin for one flower.
Contrasting with the opaline translucence of this ghostly flower is its verdant parent plant family–the Ericaceae, which contains azaleas, rhododendron and blueberries, among others. It is one of some 3,000 species of plants that do not have any chlorophyll and are thus non-photosynthetic and therefore not green. Such plants are called heterotrophs in that, like the animals and the fungi, they must obtain nutrition from a photosynthesizing autotroph. Most heterotrophic plants are parasitic, which means they absorb energy directly from their plant host. What is so unusual about Ghost Flowers is that it is one of about 400 heterotrophs that subsist on a fungus, a relationship that is referred to as mycoheterotrophic or epiparasitic. This means that Indian pipe is in a nutritional ménage à trois in that it is connected to a fungus that is in turn in a relationship with a host plant of the Ericaceae family.
And this is where the Indian Pipe gets another of its names as the roots of the Indian pipe are intermingled at the cellular level with the hyphae of the fungus so that the appearance is that of a Bird’s Nest.
The ethereal appearance of the Indian Pipe with its pallid, bract-covered stem topped by a nodding, equally white flower, makes it one of the most readily identifiable wildflowers. Because of its distiict appearance, it has many metaphorical sobriquets ranging from Death Plant to Fairy Smoke. It is cool to the touch and is sometimes called Ice Plant. Indian Pipe decomposes into a black, gelatinous mass and is accorded that macabre Corpse Plant for this characteristic.
Native Americans used its stem juices in the preparation of a treatment for sore or inflamed eyes from whence comes the name Eyebright. They also used it as a topical application for warts and bunions, and to ameliorate general aches and pains. The Colonists adopted these practices, and extended them to the use of the powdered root in the treatment of a variety of ailments, notably Saint Vitus’ Dance or chorea, a nervous condition characterized by irregular, jerking movements. The common names Fit Root and Convulsion Root are vestiges of this practice.
Indian Pipe is seen as either angelic, as Mary Higgenson saw it, or satanic as Nellie Blanchan de Graff viewed it. A noted nature writer and scientific historian of the late nineteenth century, she offered the opinion that, ” … no wonder it grows black with shame on being picked, as if its wickedness was just being discovered.”
Whether you consider them fair or foul, Ghost Flowers can surely be regarded as one of the most unusual species in the forest world.
It has been both a magical and surreal as well as a long and exhausting day. I spent most of the day in my rain coat but not because it was raining. Rather, the temperatures dropped so much last night that the first half of the day was spent hiking in temperatures in the low 50s. In mid-July! Needless to say, my Raynaud’s Phenomenon wasn’t happy but I ignored it because the hikes on Roan Mountain and Round and Jane balds were so awesome that I just couldn’t be troubled.
More than a mile high, clouds skittering past us, magic and perfumed Balsam Fir forests and grassy balds lined with blueberries. Wildlife from the small–chipmunks and bunnies–to the large–deer and black bear–only added to the pleasure. And, having just finished “The Shining” by Stephen King, it was fun to visit the site of the former Cloudland Hotel high atop Roan Mountain which straddled the Tennessee-North Carolina border from the late 1800s until 1914 when it was dismantled. A shorter history than King’s “The Overlook,” but I had to wonder why they closed it down.
And a side note: the mountain is showing the effects of the reduction in acid rain. The old firs may be dying but the new ones are healthier and look much more ready to take over, as do the plants on the balds. See. We can change things for the better.
From high atop the mountain, in excess of 6,000 feet, we descended to Roan Mountain State Park. There we hiked a couple of trails, including the very strenuous Raven’s Rock Overlook, which led us more than 500 feet straight up a ridge for awesome views over the valley. A trail along the Doe River was hiked before we headed on to Davy Crockett Birthplace State Historic Area and hiked through its meadows and alongside Limestone Creek. And saw the cabin Crockett was born in, of course. And then we had spent more than 10 hours working/hiking and were ready for a rest.
Tomorrow some sections of the Cumberland Trail.
Yes, hiking the first trail this morning was a definite high in more ways than one. Not only were we more than a mile high, but hiking through the balsam fir forest first thing in the morning before the heat of the day descended was breathtaking in itself. There were four other people hiking right behind us, but we managed to get there and have about five minutes to ourselves before the others arrived. But, when we got back to Newfound Gap, eight miles later (the rest area with tremendous views between Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina), it was like walking into an amusement park. Culture shock, really. We did pass a number of hikers heading toward the Bunion on the way back down, but the crowds in the parking lot were mind numbing. This is just a sample.
From Newfound Gap, we descended to Gatlinburg and headed to the Porter’s Creek Trail access. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere (down a long bumpy gravel road), there were still plenty of people there when we arrived. The trail was fine but the hike a little disappointing. There was one precarious trail crossing across the eponymous creek that messed with my equilibrium. It had a weird angled handhold that threw me off, but Frank managed it by not holding on. I, unfortunately, have a fear of heights that usually translates to spaghetti legs. I wasn’t aware of this fear until I had to descend Diamond Head on Oahu as a teen. Still haven’t conquered it, but I just power through it. Feets don’t fail me now and all that.
Tomorrow: Warrior’s Path near Kingsport. And here’s a couple of close ups of trail life:
AKA: What goes up must come down. Okay, it started about 3 a.m. when I woke up because I thought I heard rain. But, it was 3 a.m., so I went back to sleep. Sure enough, when my alarm went off three hours later, it was, indeed, raining. But, we have only five days to hike eight parks, and the large umbrella purchased on the fly at Big Lots was going to have to suffice to keep my notebook dry while taking trail mileage and GPS points and other notes. Oh, and reason I call it the “trail less traveled” is because there were so many spider webs across the trail that Frank had to use the umbrella to fend them off–literally hundreds of spiders landed on the umbrella. Freaky.
So, back to Big Ridge State Park where we would hike the Big Valley Trail up to the Indian Rock Trail Loop on Big Ridge, itself. The climb up Pinnacle Ridge and down to Dark Hollow then up Big Ridge, despite being in the rain, wasn’t that bad and about what we expected. Then we entered hiker hell. The Indian Rock Trail was 2.6 miles of dodging overgrown trail–trail covered with blackberry brambles and poison ivy amongst other plants. And, of course, they were sopping. The rain stopped, but the plants were happy to soak our legs and boots. We descended through this hell all the way to the shores of Lake Norris before climbing back up to Big Ridge and the eponymous Indian Rock–at one point we went straight up hill for a quarter of a mile. And when I say straight up, I mean that it was so steep I was grabbing any hand hold I could find–sapling, rock or even a blade of grass. The bright side was that we had chosen to head left on the loop not right. I cannot imagine that I could have made it down that quarter of a mile without falling and sliding on my backside most of the way. When we reached the top, we faced more overgrown and rocky trail.
When we got back to the parking area more than six miles later, we were definitely worse for the wear–hot, tired, dehydrated. Frank had soaking boots, I had a nasty gash on my shin from crossing a blow down. A good lunch was called for before we started hiking in Norris Dam State Park. Bellies full and rehydrated, we discovered that most of the trails at Norris Dam were either horseback or biking trails. Bizarrely, the hiking trails were only accessible via each other. That meant we had to hike the Lakeside Loop to access the Christmas Fern Loop to reach the Tall Timbers Trail. It made for a convoluted hike, and at one point we had to climb 92 steps up a hillside, but compared to the morning, it was nothing. And only about 2 miles.
The next set of trails involved making a figure eight out of the Harmon Loop and Fitness Trails. They also featured more climbing than expected. We found ourselves joking along the fitness trail, sponsored by a local hospital (I am not making this up) because 1) it claimed to be for seniors but was hardly easily accessible, involved some elevation gain, and the bugs were extremely annoying; and 2) the rapidly deteriorating stations along it promised to send more seniors to the hospital than to help them physically. One station, a balance beam, was perched on the edge of steep drop off–guaranteed to send granny tumbling down the hill if she couldn’t maintain her balance. What were they thinking?
Bright spots in the day–two tortoises we saw on the Big Valley trail and two deer on the 3-trail loop, the lake was beautiful, and there were lots of lovely wild flowers and mushrooms. Plus, the sections of trail that weren’t too physically demanding were quite refreshing. All in all, a rewarding but physically demanding day. Tomorrow: Frozen Head.
A final couple of parks and we have travelled back South so that I can write up the eleven parks for my May 31 deadline. Biggest lesson learned while working on this book–NEVER agree to hike 120 trails in eight months, particularly when more than half those months are too cold to hike. I don’t care how old you are, it makes for exhausting work. But, I will say, now that Spring has finally arrived, the trails are incredibly beautiful. They are greatly improved by the addition of foliage and wildflowers, and having a hiking partner adds to the enjoyment as well because there is someone with which to share the experience.