Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pygmypipes, Appalachian Pygmy Pipes, Sweet Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)

April 2nd, 2014. We made a short trip over to Devil’s Fork State Park, South Carolina in search of Shortia galacifolia (Oconee Bells, Southern Shortia) and Monotropsis odorata (Pygmypipes, Appalachian Pygmy Pipes, Sweet Pinesap). One of the best places to see these wildflowers is the Oconee Bells Trail in Devil’s Fork State Park. 

The Oconee Bells Trail is a loop trail less than 1.5 miles in length. The trail begins at the end of a parking lot for a boat ramp and descends to creeks below. We followed the trail in a counterclockwise direction. The trail is well-developed; its descent is more precipitous in some places but allows for an easier ascent back to the trailhead. 

We have photographed both Monotropa uniflora (Indian Pipes, Ghostflower) and Monotropa hypopithys (Pinesap). Finding and photographing Monotropsis odorata (The first access to photograph the Oconee Bells was near the interpretive sign (Pygmypipes, Appalachian Pygmy Pipes, Sweet Pinesap) would complete our checklist for this group of plants. 

Monotropsis odorata has fragrant flowers; the fragrance has been described as being similar to cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and violets. I expected that the fragrance would be subtle and, as we began to keep an eye out for these plants, I remembered this characteristic and inhaled deeply as we moved along the trail in the hope that this would help us find them. 

The first hint of their presence came as we climbed the trail to a ridge (between the two Oconee Bell sites on the map). The fragrance wasn’t at all subtle; it was intense. It didn’t strike me as reminiscent of any of the suggested fragrances; it was just very pleasant, even it a little strong. We hunted around the area but couldn’t find any plants. After a while I began to think I had simply smelled a cologne lingering from a previous hiker and we pressed on.  

At the second Oconee Bells site, we met some other hikers one of whom had been on a guided botanical tour a few weeks earlier. We were using common names in discussing the plants in the area and I asked whether they had seen Sweet Pinesap (I couldn’t remember Pygmy Pipes at that moment). And here is another example of the confusion caused by the exclusive use of common names. The hikers didn’t recognize ‘Sweet Pinesap’ but after we talked for a while, one suddenly said ‘Pygmy Pipes’ and I recognized the name.  They had, indeed, been shown some and told us they could be found up ‘above’ the rhododendrons in the deciduous oak/hickory forest but couldn’t point us to a precise location other than the advice to follow the fragrance. 

We were certain then that we had smelled the Pygmy Pipes on the previous ridge. We pressed on up the eastern side of the trail. 

While we were talking, we had heard the melodic trill calls of a few American Toads (Anaxyrus – formerly Bufo - americanus) along the creek. As we climbed, the calls increased in numbers and we soon found out why. We came along side a pond which, judging by the deafening sound, was home to many toads. 

On several occasions along the trail, we smelled the fragrance of the Pygmy Pipes but couldn’t find the plants. I was thinking that it was a pity that there wasn’t a way for the hikers to be able to point us to some plants.  

Then, a few meters north of an interpretive marker for the forest, I found this…. 

lying on the trail. Our hiker friends had the same thought and improvised a note for us! Many thanks! 

The location – looking back up the trail to the forest interpretive sign and… 

ahead at a rhododendron grove. 

Even then I couldn’t find the plants – because I was looking too close to the trail. W spotted a clump further off the trail at the edge of the rhododendron grove. Success – with help!  We settled down to photograph the plants. 

Can you see them? 

Can you see them now? They blend into the background of dead leaves. 

They’re in the lower-center of the photo. 

Still closer. These flowers are a little past their best and the dusky maroon petals are not visible which explains why we couldn’t find them. 

The stems are clearly fleshy.

We thought that this was the best we would do but as W got up, his hand brushed away some leaves and he found some flowers 

that had not aged as much and… 

showed the dusky maroon petals nicely. 

Monotropsis odorata (Appalachian Pygmy Pipes, Pygmypipes, Sweet Pinesap) occur only in the southeastern United States from Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. In Georgia, they have only been formally documented in four counties: Stephens, Elbert, Hall and Gwinnett. 

Identification resouces:
- Native and Naturalized Plants of the Carolinas and Georgia: Monotropsis odorata (Appalachian Pygmy Pipes, Sweet Pinesap) 
- Flora of the Southeast: Monotropsis odorata 
- USDA Plant Database: Monotropsis odorata (Pygmypipes) 

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Jim Fowler said...

What a wonderful description of your impression of the fragrance of the Pygmy Pipes and your adventure of finding them. Aren't they just wonderful. Every year that I photograph them, the variation in their color seems to expand. Wonderful blog, too. I hope to subscribe...

Jim Fowler

JSK said...

Jim, I’m so glad you enjoyed my description/adventure of finding the Pygmy Pipes. I realized that I should – as you state – have gotten down on my hands and knees and moved the leaves carefully in the hope of finding the pipes. I thought about it at the time but wasn’t sure how far the fragrance carried; I could see having to move an acre or more of leaves. Next time, I’ll plan to spend more time at DFSP.
I enjoy following your Flickr photos and blog. I’m using it as a guide for planning trips to see wildflowers we don’t see down here.
Best wishes, and keep them coming!