~ghost flower~

July 4th, 2020


This weekend, dear friends came up to stay in our guest digs and meet us on the porch for some experimental socially distanced revelry.  On the fourth, we spatchcocked a chicken (along with grilled peaches and grilled Caesar salad) and christened our new-to-us bbq, but first hiked a nearby conservancy we’d yet to visit.


The beginning of the trail was curiously close to a drag strip in full patriotic swing, and as we made our ascent, muffler-less funny cars echoed across the milkweed meadows and moss covered woodlands.  At the top of the crest, I came upon what I later learned was a single Ghost Flower/Ghost Pipe/Indian Pipe/Corpse Flower, aka Monotopra uniflora.


While most plants survive by photosynthesis, these live in dappled light or deep shade via Myco-heterotrophy, a three-way relationship also seen in fern and orchid populations.

In this case, Russula mushrooms pull sugary carbon from tree roots (Beech or Oak, most often), and give back nutrients in a beneficial symbiosis. The ghost flower then pulls carbon from the mushroom, and, while not damaging the host plant, appears to give back nothing—except its haunting beauty.


Turns out this plant was the favorite of Emily Dickinson, who mentions it in (at least) two poems. She also wrote, in a letter to painter Mabel Loomis Todd (regarding the gifted image that would eventually grace her posthumously published volumes): That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none.


Todd’s original painting is at Amherst College, along with many documents archiving the complex circumstances surrounding these women (in brief: Todd was Dickinson’s brother’s adulterous lover, and later was a controversial editor, publisher, and executor of Emily’s estate, most notably tidying up the poet’s singular stylistic choices.)

She also published a book of her own, describing the phenomenon of eclipses–one of which was due at midnight, roughly twelve hours after our hike, the last in a Capricorn/Cancer eclipse cycle that has been ongoing since July 2018.  For the collective, this cycle has highlighted friction and opportunity to reinvent authority/structure/establishment (Capricorn) to better serve nurturing/intuition/creativity (Cancer).


My artist friend and I spoke of the collective call to reinvent of late, and of the complicated hopefulness it had wrought.  Then talk shifted to our own creative paths in light of this, and I mentioned a chapbook I was reading and how I envied its wildness of form and content, relative to the conservative publication demands I’ve been entertaining recently.

Just as we came upon a mysterious plant I now think of as Emily’s flower, said I, only half in jest, maybe I should become a poet. Almost supernatural!


(If mythical mycoheterotroph light your fairy lantern too, check out recently rediscovered Thismia neptunis, first sighted in Borneo by Odoardo Beccari in 1866, and thought lost for a century and a half.)

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