I have big plans for next Saturday, August 13, 2011. Along with numerous other botanists from the Chicago Region and beyond, I will be spending the day on my hands and knees in search of arguably the most intriguing plant species in the world, Thismia americana, as part of Thismia Hunt 2011. First observed in early August 1912 near Lake Calumet in Cook County, Illinois, observed and monitored for five straight growing seasons, and last seen in the wild in 1916, this tiny member of the mostly tropical family Burmanniaceae is far removed from its closest relative, Fairy Lantern (Thismia rodwayi), which grows only in Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. In fact, most of the plants in this family grow in rich, loamy primeval forests that receive large amounts of precipitation, and no other Thismia species are even known to occur in the temperate zone. Thismia americana has only ever been observed growing in two locations - the location of the original discovery and a site only approximately 1/3 mile away - and has not been seen alive since the year that the Chicago Cubs played their first game in Wrigley Field (then Weeghman Park).
Finding a plant that hasn't been seen in nearly a century is difficult enough, I should think. Add to that the fact that the entire plant consists of subterranean roots from which a short floral stalk arises, upon which a mysterious tubular flower up to at most 1.5 cm develops. Consider also that the translucent flower is mostly white with blue-green perianth lobes, and that only the pastel blue-green portion of the plant actually emerges from the soil between clumps of mosses. Also, if the phenology of Thismia americana is similar to that of its orchid-like relatives, it may not flower every year, or its flowers may persist fully underground. Taking all of these things into account, as well as the fact that during a Thismia hunt several years ago small white beads were randomly hidden and very few of them were ever found even after volunteer surveyors were told exactly where to look, isn't it possible that Thismia still exists somewhere, undetected for nearly 100 years? I certainly think so!
So who could have possibly initially discovered this saprophytic, nearly subterranean and leafless plant growing amongst the club moss Selaginella and the ground-hugging mosses Aneura and Hypnum beneath wet prairie species such as Sweetflag (Acorus americanus), Redtop (Agrostis gigantea), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia sp.), Blueflag Iris (Iris virginica), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and Late Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea) in a remnant lake plain prairie of glacial Lake Chicago? It was none other than the sharp-eyed 23-year old University of Chicago botany graduate student Norma Etta Pfeiffer, who was on all fours searching for liverworts on that memorable August morning. As a result of her amazing discovery and subsequent research on the new-to-science plant she named Thismia americana, Pfeiffer just two years later became the youngest person to receive a PhD from the University of Chicago. Sadly, just two years after her initial discovery and the same year that the plant name Thismia americana was published, Pfeiffer returned to the site to find that a barn had been constructed on the site of her discovery. More recently, this area has been developed into an oil-tank storage area. Thismia was also observed by Pfeiffer in a second location which consisted of cattails (Typha sp.) in a swale between ancient beach ridges. It is unclear whether this location still exists in a natural state or if it, too, has suffered the fate of development.
To date, this is the closest I've ever been to Thismia americana - holding a 2-inch, glycerine-filled vial that contains (and even dwarfs) the miniscule plant. I hope that one day, maybe even next weekend, I will have the opportunity to experience living Thismia.
Please wish me (and all of the Thismia hunters) luck next weekend as we crawl around like ants beneath the tall prairie species searching for this lilliputian ghost plant.