Today, we decided to head off toward the far northwestern part of South Carolina — Oconee County, to be specific. There is a state park called Devil’s Fork State Park on Lake Jocassee. It is most well known for its large populations of the rare Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells. Although they were just beginning to bloom, my main objective was to find and photograph the diminutive Monotropsis odorata also known as Pygmypipes or Sweet pinesap.
The first common name comes from its similarity to Monotropa uniflora or Indian pipes, but they are very small, reddish purple (not white), and usually hide under the forest’s leaf litter rather than rising above it. The second common name comes from the wonderful fragrance that is reminiscent of cloves and cinnamon. In fact, since the fragrance is so strong and sweet, it is expected that you will smell them before you see them. It is hypothesized that the flowers emit highly fragrant odors that serve to attract pollinators and seed dispersal agents. Bumble bees have been observed finding and pollinating many reproductive stems that were entirely hidden by the leaf litter itself (source of pollination information).
It is listed as a species of concern in several states, and even as endangered in Florida and Maryland. In the upstate of South Carolina, it is fairly plentiful — if you know where and how to find the plants.
Several years ago, I was shown by a local botanist how to find these plants since they were usually buried by leaves: First, notice the fragrance. Second, get down on your hands and knees and sniff. Next, move in the direction of the strongest fragrance, brushing away the leaves down to the level of the soil as you crawl. Eventually, you will find the plants poking out of the ground about three inches (7.5 cm) tall.
Monotropsis odorata, unlike most plants, does not contain chlorophyl, so they get their nutrition from elsewhere — the plants are parasitic: Specifically, its nutritional hosts are certain fungi that are mycorrhizal with tree roots. I am uncertain which tree roots, but I generally find the plants growing under Kalmia latifolia or Mountain laurel.
Although the flowers are quite small (slightly larger than 1/4 inch or 6 mm), their color is remarkable:
One of the main reasons they are so hard to spot in the forest is because of the tan colored bracts that sheath the flowers. From above, they are the same color as the leaf litter:
Some of the flowers are almost a pure purple color with a very thin line of lighter purple on the tips of the petals:
Other groups of plants had flowers that were a pleasing raspberry pink color:
While looking for some fresh flowers to photograph, I stumbled upon a group of seed capsules from last year’s flowering. What is interesting about these seed capsules is that they are about twice as tall as the plants were when they were in flower. After the flowers are pollinated (apparently by bees), the stem elongates and the ripening seed capsules point skyward…
All considered, this was a very good day to get back out into the field and enjoy the fresh spring weather — I can still smell the fragrance of these tiny, but beautiful flowers. Fortunately, we have some great botanical areas in the upstate of South Carolina that are within a short drive.