Showing posts with label fragrant pinesap. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fragrant pinesap. Show all posts

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Finding the Fragrant Pinesap

Fragrant Pineseap (Monotropsis odorata).

I texted my on-line friend, Dr. Matthew Klooster, on Saturday morning to arrange the time we would meet, since Natural Bridge State Park was about an hour's drive from his home. He expected to arrive sometime around 10 AM and I agreed to wait for him in the lobby of the Lodge.

He was running a bit late, but since there weren't many guests at the lodge, we identified each other right away even though it was our first face-to-face meeting. He was a nice looking young man, sporting a fashionably trim beard and we chatted easily at the lodge for a short while before setting out to find the Fragrant Pinesap plants.

Dr. Matt explained that the site was in the Daniel Boone National Forest, about a ten minute drive from the lodge. He drove back towards the main road, but from there I couldn't tell the direction where we headed, nor what turns we made to get to the site. We reached the area and there were a lot of cars parked along the gravel road--apparently this is a popular hiking area, and despite the cloudy, chilly weather, there were lots of hikers here today. We had to circle around to find a suitable place to pull off and park his SUV.

We walked for a few minutes along a trail and as we were passing by a few scrubby young pine trees he looked into the underbrush and exclaimed "Here's some!" I looked but saw nothing there. He walked further into the woods behind some bushes and said, "Here's more, there's lots of them right here."


Dr. Matt Klooster photographing the Fragrant Pinesap

I leaned down close to the ground and he pointed to these tiny caps peeking out from the leaf litter--one could barely tell they were plants, much less flowers. I could have walked right on top of them and never known I was upon them! I got down on my knees to see better and started taking photos.

I marveled at how Matt had been able to spot these tiny flowers and he told me it had taken him some time to learn to see them, but after a number of years studying them for his dissertation, he had it down perfectly. Interestingly, the plants here seemed to prefer growing under young pine trees, rather than the more mature forest I would have expected. I wonder what species of mycorrhizal fungi they associate with?

Fragrant Pinesap

I had a difficult time with my camera's automatic focus--the leaf litter competed with the inconspicuous flowers so well it couldn't decide where to focus. Fortunately I had my cell phone with me and Matt suggested I try using that. The phone's camera did the trick--it was much easier to zoom in and get exactly what I needed. I shot lots of different individuals, more than enough for my illustrations, in just this one small patch.




The range of color variation from plant to plant is considerable, some of the stems were a deep magenta-purple, with others a much more subdued reddish brown or nearly black. There wasn't much fragrance today, but if you got your nose down very close, a faint aroma of camphor, or maybe clove, could be detected. I figured this had to be due to the cold, since I've heard that many people locate the plant by scent before they can see it.

With such tiny flowers, I wondered what insect pollinated them. Presumably the scent attracted the pollinator. Matt explained that the flowers were buzz-pollinated by bumblebees. Buzz-pollination is accomplished by the bee beating its wings at a certain frequency that causes the pollen to be released from the pollen sacs. How exactly does the bee know to do this is a mystery worth pondering...




After this we walked a bit farther down the trail, where Matt pointed out some crested iris starting to open, and a few other spring flowers. The orange color of the fruiting bodies of  some lichens again caught my eye.

Orange-fruited lichen

These looked very like the Pink Bubblegum lichen I'd seen on Laurel Ridge the day before, but bright orange in color. It was growing alongside some Trailing Arbutus, just as on the ridge.

My friend Matt had to get back to his family soon, so shortly after this, we walked back to his car and he dropped me off at Hemlock Lodge. A brief, but amazing encounter with a fascinating gentleman and botanical subject! I had more than enough material to keep me busy painting for a good long time.

I started the painting several months later, recently. Here's a photo of my painting in progress (not very well-lit).

Monotropsis watercolor in progress.

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.