I heard flowers that sounded, and saw notes that shone.
~~Louis Claude de Saint-Martin on Union with God.
July has come to Dane County, Wisconsin, and Aldo Leopold begins the chapter with his daily (good weather) ceremony on his 120-acre farm:
“At 3:35 (a.m.),” he writes, “the nearest field sparrow avows, in a clear tenor chant, that he holds the jackpine copse north to the riverbank, and south to the old wagon track.”
Leopold then continues to describe the daily symphony of birdsong as they all call out their territories, ending with a bedlam of birdsong at dawn as grosbeaks, thrashers, yellow warblers, bluebirds, towhees, cardinals, make their claims. When the bird songs are no longer decipherable, Leopold heads out for his morning walk with his dog.
They never know what will turn up on their walk, Leopold notes. It could be a rabbit, a coon, or a mink; perhaps a deer returning to the thickets, a heron caught in the act of fishing, or a wood duck trailed by her ducklings. A tractor roaring to life recalls them to the fact they are not alone in this early morning world, and they return home for breakfast.
Most of the chapter on July is dedicated to the once ubiquitous prairie plant know as Silphium or Compass plant (because its leaves have an east-west orientation).
“Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm,” Leopold writes.
This cemetery is ordinary, he says, except, “It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pinpoint remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.”
Leopold spies the blooms on July 24, a week later than normal, but when he drives by again, on August 3, the fence has been removed and the corner of the cemetery mowed down, along with the Silphium. He then laments the world in which, “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days.
He compares the number of wild plant species growing on this farm to those that grow in the suburbs and the university campus where he works–226 versus 120–the price of progress. We are confronted by two alternatives, he writes: “either insure the continued blindness of the populace, or examine the question whether we cannot have both progress and plants.”
“We grieve only for what we know,” he writes later.
“Why does Silphium disappear from grazed areas?” he asks, then posits, “I once saw a farmer turn his cows into a virgin prairie meadow previously used only sporadically for mowing wild hay. The cows cropped the Silphium to the ground before any other plant was visibly eaten at all. One can imagine that the buffalo once had the same preference for Silphium, but he brooked no fences to confine his nibblings all summer long to one meadow. In short, the buffalo’s pasturing was discontinuous, and therefore tolerable to Silphium.
“It is a kind of providence that has withheld a sense of history from the thousands of species of plants and animals that have exterminated each other to build the present world. The same kind of providence now withholds it from us. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of the never-never land.”
It is the height of summer in Scotland and the flowers are blooming profusely. Here are several macro shots taken while in Edinburgh and along Saint Cuthbert’s Way in Scotland. If you wish to see the other six, you can find them here at my website: Macro Moments.
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.