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GHOSTS OF SUMMER'S WOODS / Jack Sanders THERE'S SOMETHING EERIE about seeing a cluster of Indian pipes, heads downturned, on a warm summer day. Ghostly and greenless, they remind one more of mushrooms than of the herbs they are. Their white flesh is unexpected and freakish, especially when you realize that they are wUdflowers and not some oddly formed fungus. Because of their unusual appearance, Indians pipes are, once seen, never forgotten. I can remember finding them as a child on Nantucket Island and being told their name. That, the daisy, black-eyed susan, and the violet were probably the only wildflowers I could name till well into adulthood. Indian pipes are white or bluish-white (rarely pink or red), almost leafless plants bearing a single five-petaled flower that, when young, faces the earth. The shape of the plant resembles a clay pipe whose stem has been stuck in the earth, and the flower is not unlike the bowl. This albino of the flowering plant world is, surprisingly, somewhat closely related to the dogwoods, heaths, and even to the evergreen laurels and rhododendrons. But to look at its almost leafless white stalk and its plain white fleshy flower, one would be hard pressed to imagine similarities with those of chlorophyllous plants. The Indian pipe is a member of a tiny clan of only three or four species. Only it and pinesap are found in North America; another inhabits such far-away places as Japan and the Himalayas—where our own Indian pipe may also be found. Another, called bird's nest, is found in Britain and Europe. Indian pipes are one of our few native wildflowers that might be called transcontinental, for they may be found from Maine to Florida, and from Washington to California, right down to and into Mexico. They also range across southern Canada and into Alaska. In most areas they appear in mid-summer. Scientists call it Monotropa uniflora, meaning "once-turned" and "single-flowered." "Once-turned" refers to the fact that the flowers, which face the ground early in their life, turn straight upward once they begin producing seeds (though you'd think the plant would be straight first and bent second, in order to spiU out the seeds). Monotropa is in turn a member ofthe wintergreen family (Pyrolaceae), a small clan of only ten genera in North American, their chief habitat. 84 · The Missouri Review They include the equally unusual pine-drops and beech-drops (which, not surprisingly, live near pine and beech trees). The Saprophytic Plant The Indian pipe is strange not only in appearance, but in habit. It's a saprophyte (from the Greek, "rotten plant"), living chiefly on the decaying roots of other plants, particularly trees. Indian pipes are most often found near a dead stump in deep woods, although they will sometimes pop up in a lawn near dead tree roots. They favor beech woods, but will live in others, and it is said that the best time to find them is after a heavy, soaking midsummer rain. Some botanists believe that the roots, working in symbiotic conjunction with certain soil fungi such as mushrooms, also obtain food from live tree roots, which would make the plant a parasite as well as a saprophyte.1 If this is true, the Indian pipe certainly has a small enough appetite that it can do no harm to large trees, most of whose roots are well beyond its reach. Since the plant obtains all the nutrients it needs from other plants, it requires neither leaves nor chlorophyll, the factories and the chemical employed by most plants in using sunlight to create carbohydrates for food. In the long process of evolution, it lost both—with only vestiges of leaves remaining in the form of white, scale-like appendages on the stems. The plant can't be picked for display—not that anyone would want it as a decoration—because its flesh turns black when cut or even bruised. It also oozes a clear, gelatinous substance when picked or wounded. Such unattractive characteristics have earned the Indian pipe some unflattering names, like ghost flower, corpse plant, and American iceplant. Another is pretty: fairy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 84-88
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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