Where Have All the Pygmy Pipes Gone?

By Carmel van Hoek

I haven’t heard any mention of pygmy pipes in quite a while, and the last collections, according to the USF Plant Atlas, were made in 2012 in Pasco and St. Johns Counties. I wonder if these little endemic, state endangered obscurities are taking another sabbatical as they have sometimes done since the late 1800’s when they were first discovered.

Photograph by Betty Wargo. Courtesy of The Atlas of Florida Plants
Photograph by Rita Lassiter
. Courtesy of 
The Atlas of Florida Plants
In December of 1884, in east Florida near St. Augustine, Mary C. Reynolds found several small plants that obviously lacked chlorophyll as they displayed no hint of green. They looked somewhat like Indian Pipes, Monotropa uniflora, except that these plants were smaller, some barely visible above the leaf litter. And they were suffused with colors of pink and pale lavender instead of being ghostly white. Instead of a single flower atop the stem as in Indian Pipes, these stems held a cluster of flowers.
Photo by Rita Lassiter
Courtesy of The Atlas of Florida Plants
Mary made a collection of the different-looking species and had them seen by Dr. Asa Gray, a well-known botanist of that period. Dr. Gray recognized the plants as a new species thought to be related to other achlorophyllous herbs of Ericaceae or Heath Family. His description of the species was subsequently published as Monotropsis reynoldsiae, named in honor of the collector. This first ever collected specimen of pygmy pipes is vouchered at the Smithsonian Institute and can be viewed online. 

I assume that as the Florida weather began to warm from winter into late spring Mary Reynolds’ little plants gradually disappeared, never to be seen again...Until December of 1977, that is, 93 years later! 

Botanist Rita Lassiter was the first one to rediscover pigmy pipes in a hardwood hammock in Hernando County, and it created quite a stir in botanical circles. Frequent sightings were reported during the winters of 1977-79, all in Hernando County, and several collections were made for further study of the fungus on which the plant feeds as well as of the plant itself. Gradually the range of Pygmy pipes has spread as collections have since been made in Pasco, Marion, Volusia and St. Johns Counties.

Photo by John Kunzer
Courtesy of The Atlas of Florida Plants
Monotropsis reynoldsiae is found usually in rich woods of oak hammocks and flowering dogwoods. They have been found as early in the year as November until late February. Its stems can be 1.5 to almost 5” long, and some of their length can be buried in leaf litter. A thick cluster of flowers, pale pink and white-mottled, top the stem, nodding bell-like at first and later straightening in age. Be looking for them until spring. 

For more information on Montoropsis reymoldsiae, visit the species page on the USF Atlas of Florida Plants. 

Carmel van Hoek is a member of the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and recipient of the the FNPS Mentor Award in 2015. 

Posted by Donna Bollenbach


Anonymous said…
fascinating! When I lived in Clay County the Indian Pipes came up every year in the same spot in my yard. Had never heard of the pygmies.

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