Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Native South Sider

If I were to tell you there was a flower that has only ever been seen growing on the South Side of Chicago, would you believe me?

It's true. The plant, Thismia americana, is a tiny little thing, about a quarter of an inch tall, and it looks like this:

It blooms in late summer in the wet prairies on the south shore of Lake Calumet. Or at least it used to - the only place where it was seen is now the site of a Ford Plant, and Thismia americana hasn't been seen since 1916.

Just about everything about this plant is remarkable. It was discovered in 1912 by Norma Pfeiffer, a graduate student in botany at the University of Chicago, who went on to become the University's youngest PhD (or so I read - I can't vouch for factuality of that claim, and am slightly suspicious of it). The plant itself is parasitic, lacks chlorophyll, and is a member of a plant family that is closely related to orchids and is generally tropical.

In the years since its disappearance Thismia americana has become the holy grail of Chicago-area botany. For a while there were annual searches for it in the remaining areas of similar habitat in the marshy lowlands south of Lake Michigan along the Illinois-Indiana boundary. I took part in one such search; in high school I was a pretty active botanist. Needless to say, the plant remains unrediscovered.

I hope, of course, that Thismia still exists and gets rediscovered, but I further hope that when it does, it will be found within city limits on the South Side.


BlueNight said...

That's amazing and beautiful.

And yet I got here by searching Google for "cock caulk pun".

This was the second entry.

Hovie said...

there is a play going up about this little plant September 24-27. let me know if you want more information!