Showing posts with label elusive plant. Show all posts
Showing posts with label elusive plant. Show all posts

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Stalking the Fragrant Pinesap

Fragrant Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)

For a number of years I'd been wanting to find some Fragrant Pinesap (Montropsis odorata) to photograph and paint. When I first read about it I was intrigued by this elusive member of the fascinating Monotropa family: lacking chlorophyll like the rest of this family, it bloomed in the spring and fall but only the spring blossoms were fragrant. The fragrance was described as spicy, resembling cloves, allspice or cinnamon. The flower is so inconspicuous, that the sources said it was common to first detect it by scent. It grew in native forests under pine trees, where it presumably found the mycorrhizal fungi necessary to sustain itself.

Living in Maryland at the time, I looked for it in Calvert County, the only place in the state where it was listed, but despite many hikes in the area, I was never able to find it anywhere. When I moved to Virginia I asked some of the folks from the Virginia Native Plant Society if they'd ever found it in this area. One gentleman thought he'd photographed one flowering stem in the fall during a hike, and shared the location of his find.

Herb and I set out to try to find it one spring, but despite spending hours at the site, we didn't see a thing. I figured either we were too late in year (it was mid to late April), or the dry spring had not been propitious for growth that year. I put it on the back burner and got involved in other pursuits.

A couple of years later, through an incredible set of coincidences(?), I was contacted by a gentleman who wished to buy a watercolor of a related plant, Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora), which I'd painted many years earlier. When I asked why this particular painting interested him, he told me he was a botanist and had written his dissertation on this family of plants. We corresponded by email and I asked him what he knew about Fragrant Pinesap, if he knew of any locations where it could be found? He was kind enough to share several of the research articles he had published.

Among the fascinating things Matt's articles revealed, was that although the flowering stems of Monotropsis odorata emerged in the fall (as with other members of the Monotropa family, the only part of the plant that grows above ground is the flowering stem), the flowers remained unopened throughout the winter, protected by bracts that became papery and blended perfectly with the litter on the forest floor, making them very difficult to spot. Then in early spring, the flowers finally opened, emitting their fragrance. That would account for why there was no scent in the fall--the flowers had not opened.

Matt lived in Kentucky, and the site where he'd found the plants was in the Daniel Boone National Forest about an hour away from his home. We made plans to meet the following spring so he could show me the plants. Unfortunately, the following spring I had all sorts of dental troubles and was not able to travel. I would wait another year before my wish could be fulfilled.

Finally, early this year I contacted Matt and considering the warm winter weather, he estimated that the plants would likely bloom towards the end of March. I made plans to spend a long weekend at Natural Bridge State Park in KY so that I could make the seven and a half hour drive there and back and be able to spend a couple of full days exploring the area.

Hemlock Lodge at Natural Bridge State Park

I started out driving on a Thursday morning, drove through a part of WV that Herb and I had seen a couple of summers ago when we visited Dolly Sods, really beautiful back country roads. My route took me past Seneca Rocks and then up a steep mountain road through Elkins towards the interstate. I followed I-79 south to Charleston and then turned west onto I-64, arriving at Hemlock Lodge around 6 PM. By the time I'd checked in and got settled, it was getting dark, so there was nothing to do but have dinner and relax. There would be plenty of time to explore the place tomorrow, since Matt had agreed we'd meet on Saturday.