In his September 24 post featuring flowers from along Austin’s Bull Creek, Steve Schwartzman included this quotation from Jordan Ellenburg’s book How Not to Be Wrong: “Impossible things never happen. But improbable things happen a lot.”
Only three days later, as if to prove the point, a small collection of flowers known as Indian Pipe greeted me from beneath a large pine at the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve. I’d seen photographs of them from locations as diverse as Montana and Massachusetts, but it never occurred to me that they might call Texas home. In fact, the plant prefers mature, moist, shaded forest, so the piney woods of east Texas provide a perfect environment.
Sometimes called the Ghost Plant because of its white, waxy appearance, the Indian Pipe has no chlorophyll and doesn’t depend on photosynthesis.
Once considered a saprophyte — an organism that feeds, absorbs, or grows on decaying organic matter — Indian Pipe today is understood as a parasite. Its roots extend in a web-like way through dead rotting leaves, extracting nutrients from the hyphae (fungal strands) of certain kinds of fungi.
Each stem bears a single flower which initially points down to the ground, helping to fend off rain. As the bud opens, it becomes parallel to the ground, making it more easily accessible for pollinating bees. After pollination, the flower becomes erect, and the seed capsule begins to mature; ripened seed is released through slits that open from the tip to the base of the capsule. All three flower stages — pendant, perpendicular, and upright — are shown in the photo below.
Poet Emily Dickinson once called the Indian Pipe “the preferred flower of life.” In a letter to Mabel Todd, she recalled, “I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child, an unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances the mystery, never decreases it.”
So fond was she of the flower that she chose it for the cover of her first book of poems, published after her death.
Now that I’ve seen the flower, glowing like an apparition in deep forest shade, Emily’s poetic references seem especially appropriate:
White as an Indian Pipe
Red as a Cardinal Flower
Fabulous as a Moon at Noon
February Hour —
Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe –
‘Tis dimmer than a Lace –
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place –