by Sol Nix
I am at my roommate’s birthday party. I am sitting on the couch with my ex. My voice is hushed, as if I’m telling a campfire story. I am running my mouth about a plant.
“It only grows on the South Side, but no one has found a specimen for over a hundred years,” I explain. “A twenty-something grad student at U of C discovered it in 1912. She was doing field work in a prairie meadow, and she found these tiny white flowers in the soil. She stashed them in an empty coffee can, brought them back to the professors, and guess what? It’s from a genus that you usually only find in the tropics. Yet somehow it grew here,” I pause for effect. “In sunny Chicago.”
I drink from my can of key lime La Croix. “No one’s spotted the plant since 1916, and we totally fucked its habitat. So it might be extinct.” I wipe my mouth. “But. The botanist who found it, at least she got a topic for her doctorate thesis and a whole career out of the situation. Her name was Norma Pfeiffer and she named the plant Thismia americana.”
Marten tries the short, common name out loud: “Thismia.” At the doorway, a pair of smokers stomp inside and initiate the winter boot removal process, grumbling theatrically. Marten glances their way.
“So get this; the plant is tiny,” I continue. “Thismia’s flowers are about the size of a pencil eraser and the rest is just roots. And it lives underground most of the time. The flowers are white, like pearls, with just a little bit of blue. Thismia doesn’t produce any chlorophyll.”
Martens eyes swipe back to mine. “So, how does it eat?”
“Oh my god, this is a weird part; it’s what they call a myco-heterotroph.” I laugh at my own bullshit, at my English-major-ass self-assuredly reciting botanical terms like a camp counselor announcing the name of a ghost. “Something about a parasitic relationship with fungi in the roots. It gets nutrients from rotting organic material. So when she found Thismia during its blooming period in late summer, the flowers were at the surface. Otherwise, the plant is underground all the time. It doesn’t need the sun”
The party is filling up. A cork pops in the kitchen, accompanied by hooting. The living room smells delicious, inescapably delicious, a byproduct of the fancy soap samples Marten’s partner brought from their job at Lush. Across the coffee table, my roommate cracks open a La Croix. On the other side of the couch, a twink is hollering about his barista job. My gaze drifts, longingly, towards the next round of smokers suiting up for a visit to the porch, but Marten leans into my view, shoulders turned towards me, and asks: “And it’s a plant? It’s not a fungus or a moss or something?”
I nod in the affirmative. “Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s a vascular plant. This is the only one like it in North America. But there are other plants in the Thismia genus, in parts of, uhhh, South America, Africa, New Zealand, Southeast Asia. One of them, from Malaysia? Thismia neptunis? It had been hidden for over 150 years. Scientists just found it again in 2017. Can you believe that?”
Brow furrowed, Marten asks: “And so, for this one from Chicago. The scientist. She found it on the South Side? Which part?”
“Lake Calumet area. So that is very far east, almost Indiana. Nightmarish amounts of pollution. It’s just north of a Superfund site.”
Marten rests an elbow on a knee. “I know about Superfund sites. There was one out where I grew up, too.” They pause, make a satisfied chest noise and then say “I feel like this plant might be able to survive all of that.”
Surprised, lips to beverage can, I nod enthusiastically in agreement, spilling seltzer water onto my shirt.
Marten straightens up. “Yeah. I feel like I’m the kind of person that could find Thismia.”
When I first start reading in earnest about this plant, I encounter a recently published journal article from 2019. Its title: “Thismia americana: A Chicago Endemic or an Elaborate Hoax?”
“Shit,” I murmur at the kitchen table.
My partner Dave looks up from his coding exercises. “Everything ok?” he asks. “I’ll tell you in a few minutes,” I say, gloomy, opening the PDF in a new tab.
I scroll and scroll. I find this final sentence: “As improbable as the discovery of Thismia americana in Chicago might be, we would suggest that a hoax that has survived critical thinking and examination this long is even more improbable—even if one could quantify improbability.”
I look over to Dave, relieved. “Yeah, we’re good,” I say.
The article describes T. americana’s habit as “cryptic and immersed,” adding “In the early 1990’s, during one ‘Thismia hunt,’ the organizers cast 100 small white beads into the vegetation of each of three remnant prairie sites known to have black sandy Mollisols. All were curious to see how many beads would be retrieved by the hordes of searchers combing the area on hands and knees. None were found, even though the beads lay upon the soil.”
Several months later, I come across a reference to a Wall Street Journal article from 2016, documenting a recent Thismia hunt. I find the piece on Google. My eyes scan down to the second paragraph, which starts with a banger of a quote from the hunt’s organizer:
“If you find it, start screaming.”
I raise my eyebrows with approval. I scroll down to see how long of a read I have ahead of me. I immediately smack into a paywall.
“To read the full story,” it says, offering two options: subscribe, sign in. I deflate, copy the link, add it to a list.
In 1952, the Chicago Museum of Natural History—eventually renamed to the Field Museum—published its periodical Bulletin with a very cute, very ominous article entitled “Unique Chicago Tropic Plant has Vanished.”
The article is illustrated by a blocky cartoon map. The site of T. americana’s discovery is corralled on all four sides by friendly, pastoral, Looney Tunes-esque drawings of Lake Calumet and the Nickel Plate Railroad, by a Ford factory, by the Solvay Coke plant, and by Torrence Avenue. Inside of this territory is a line drawing of a Thismia bloom, and a magnifying-glass-holding, safari-hat-wearing scientist. The speech bubble from his mouth: “YIKES! THISMIA AMERICANA.”
A quote from the article: “Just enough [T. americana specimens] had been collected to allow the plant to be classified… There weren’t even enough specimens to permit further study to find out how it got here, of all the unexpected places in the world. It just disappeared.” The article concludes: “The only hope of solving the mystery of how Thismia got to Chicago, and how it survived the winters, depends on saving that prairie field.”
In 1914, Dr. Pfeiffer released her findings in the article “Morphology of Thismia americana” in the Botanical Gazette. The same year, in the Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota, she published a second piece, entitled “Undiscovered Plants,” in which she describes the context informing her early encounters with T. americana. “Unless very intensively worked over from the plant side (and this is particularly true with lower plants) a region may seldom be said to be hopeless”(45-6).
Another selection, from the same article: “For those of us who… are unable to experience the pleasures with the attending hardships, of the botanical excursion into unexplored country, there still remain the regions about us. In these areas, withal they have been cursorily examined, there may exist at the present time, forms as of yet undreamed of” (48).
When I read this piece, squinting at the original typeface scanned into Google Books, I realized that Dr. Pfeiffer did not once mention her role in the discovery of T. americana. But, pre-empting my confusion, the editor begins a footnote like this: “Dr. Pfieffer’s modesty prevents her from saying that the discovery mentioned here was made by herself”(47).
Typical, I think to myself.
I am sitting on the ground, left ankle in my hands. I am laboring to unlace my boots. I am gabbing to Remi about T. americana. I tell her that I have decided that the scientist who found the plant was gay. “I have no grounds to make this claim,” I say, pompous, laughing, tugging my boot, sleet and sidewalk salt crumbling to the floor. “But I just get a vibe about her.”
Remi, watching the scene with bemused gravity, says “Oh, well, she was a botanist in 1912. And her name was Norma. Surely there is a vibe.”
I’m elbow-deep in a 1994 article from the Chicago Reader entitled, “Searching For Thismia.”
“On August 6th, five cars caravanned through a Mad Max landscape of crumbled asphalt, weeds, and sunbaked dirt, ferrying one of this year’s Thismia Hunt teams through the mostly empty grounds of the once-huge Du Pont factory in Hammond.”
A little further on: “The original location was eliminated as a possible site, decades ago, when a lot of heavy industry came to that part of Chicago. Wilhelm and others estimate that at least three feet of industrial ash and other gunk covers the native soil now—far too much for little Thismia to climb through.”
I knew how the story ended. I knew that we drained, poisoned, and killed the wet prairies of our region. But still. Vaguely nauseated, I continue, soon coming to this section:
“…a half mile later the outing started to feel more like a fraternity-initiation ritual than an ecological joyride: at random intervals the hunters suddenly stepped off the trail and dropped to all fours in the sedges. I started to wonder who was going to paddle us and force cheap liquor down our throats, but Ken Johnson, the Will County botanist, reassured me that this was the way it was done.
“‘That’s what botanizing is all about,’ said Johnson, a lean man almost as tall as the cattails. ‘It’s not glamorous. It’s getting off the beaten paths, getting down in the mud, and seeing what lives there.'”
I have advanced to armpit-deep in the article, to a section about Dr. Pfeiffer’s biography, when I notice a euphemism. My mood shifts. Joyful, I slap my hands on the tabletop, and I grab my phone to text to Remi.
so norma pfeiffer? the young botany grad student who found Thismia? CONFIRMED GAY. her ‘lifelong companion’ was named Zella Colvin. we both just KNEW.
we KNEW!!! I’m so happy about this. way to go norma. you get what’s good in life- being gay and botany.
I text Remi a hearty and sincere LOL and then, knowing about her academic log-in privileges, I send this:
later tonight, may I email u a list of paywalled articles/ shit that I bet is easily found in a database?
In 1984, plant biologist Robert Mohlenbrock, who had covered T. americana in a recent book, received a surprise letter from Dr. Norma Pfeiffer. By then, she was approaching her 100th birthday. The letter’s contents give more specific details about her discovery from over seventy years prior.
Notably and hilariously, however, is her salutation to the biologist: “I bet you had no idea I was still on this side of the River Styx.”
I pull up Google maps. I go looking for the storied meadow between Torrence Avenue and Lake Calumet. Upon finding the site, I see that a section has been colored with pale green and labeled: “Indian Ridge Marsh Park (Park No. 565).”
My shoulders loosening, I realize that a part of Norma’s meadow has been converted into a wetland reserve.
In the aforementioned publication, from the Field Museum, a sleek and sans-serif edition of Bulletin from 1973, I found another article about T. americana.
“Recently we received a letter from Dr. Pfeiffer saying: ‘There are still in my possession bits and pieces of the Burmanniaceous Thismia americana which I found in the Chicago area years ago.’ Would we like to have it? Would we!
“A few days later, Dr. Pfeiffer, now a spry octogenarian, came in with a carton and two old coffee cans containing the research material that had been the basis for her studies published in the Botanical Gazette in 1914. Her ‘bits and pieces’ are certainly a grand gift. They increase the known material available to researchers twentyfold!”
I look at the photograph of one of the coffee cans. The manufacturer’s label says: “Chase & Sanborn’s Seal Brand Coffee.” Scrawled in dark, angular writing atop the graphics, at a slant, disappearing around the side of the can, the botanist’s label says: “Thismia.”
This is the pulse at the wrist of the story. This is the flutter of hope and wonder present in even the driest scholarly literature about Thismia americana. The plant first appeared to a grad student armed with a few empty coffee cans, yet the plant has also evaded acclaimed conservationists and botanists for a century, long enough to be considered officially extinct.
This is the loopy adrenal spike of self-confidence, present in the searches for T. americana organized in 1948, then again in 1951, as well as in 1991, 1994, and also in 2002, 2011, 2016: anyone might find it next. And, damn it, I feel like I’m the kind of person that could find Thismia, too. I grew up in the southeast suburbs of Chicago, just miles from the site of Dr. Pfeiffer’s discovery, and I spent my childhood late summers locked to the soil, chin to knees, behind my house. The English Ivy planted by the previous owners, leaves like leaded glass windows, smokey and glossy, grasping, climbing, well-funded, groomed. The Garlic Mustard from the adjacent forest preserve carried into the yard as seed riding the mud lodged in the hooves of foraging deer, the delicious, nostril-widening, peppery fragrance as you pulled it up by the root and crushed it into a yard waste bag. It was invasive and you were supposed to round them up. They were ubiquitous and like horses they escaped from the gardens of colonists and went feral and formed herds. Among them, just as consistently, the native violets, low to the ground, delicate but unfussy, chose shady spots, over-worked spots, shitty clay soil, persistent like specks of purple glitter on New Year’s Day. When I was little, I took advantage of my proximity to the ground. I’d run my hands over mosses and liverworts. I’d overturn rocks and paving stones, and I’d watch as the subterrestrial receded once more from the surface. Earthworms flexing and sliding deeper into their tunnels, ants scrambling to carry eggs down to shelter, the green flash of a beetle’s mad sprint, root systems pale like lightning bolts against the clouds.
I won’t pretend that I’m not being silly. It’s embarrassing to even daydream about finding T. americana when so many professionals have failed. I have zero formal training. I’m powered on nothing but my sharp eyes and my enormous stores of hubris. Nonetheless, like all of the others: I feel like I’m the kind of person who could find Thismia, and I feel like I’m the kind of person who might have already encountered Thismia, without knowing.
How many half-constructed, empty and echoing, rewilding, luxury suburban subdivisions have I treated as only a shortcut, moody, headphones to ears, eyes unfocused? How many wildflowers did my childhood hands yank upwards from the soil?
This is the rushing in my ears. These are the needles in my fingertips.
I’m not a botanist. But from behind my computer, I gently push aside the prairie grass. Hands hovering over the keyboard, I sift through rotting leaves. I dig for what blooms in darkness.