August 17, 2021
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo
We have always visited the woods in springtime for those early spring ephemerals that need to bloom before the trees leaf out. But we’ve learned that some flowers grow in the shade of trees throughout the summer because they don’t need sunshine—they have no chlorophyll to make their own food and depend on fungi and rotting debris to feed them.
One of these flowers is autumn coralroot. Like most of the coralroots it has no chlorophyll (early coralroot has a little chlorophyll in its stem but still needs fungi), so it can bloom even in deep shade. On an August evening we headed to a county park where almost all of the trees are virgin forest and where, thanks to a tip from a wildflower friend, we had seen autumn coralroot growing last September.
Maybe we were a week or so too early. Maybe this year the coralroot decided to wait out the drought—the ground was so hard it was easy to imagine plants underground with little jackhammers trying to break through. Whatever the reason, the only possible sign of autumn coralroot was a mowed-over brown patch of dried stems sticking a few inches out of the ground that might possibly have been last year’s autumn coralroot stems.
We did see lots of ghost pipe just emerging from the leaf litter, so white it seemed to glow. Like coralroot, ghost pipe has no chlorophyll—it, too, depends on fungi to feed it. Finding ghost pipe always feels like a treat, something pale and mysterious unfolding as it grows and looking, well, ghostly.
We were thrilled, too, to find zigzag goldenrod growing at the edge of the woods. This year we’re working on learning all of the goldenrods, and being able to identify zigzag brings our total of ones we’re sure of to four out of eighteen: zigzag, stiff, white upland, and grass-leaved. Only fourteen more to go.
The evening was still so hot that we dripped with sweat. Like ghost pipe and the ghost of autumn coralroot, we, too, were shade lovers, glad of the occasional breeze. And since we, too, have no chlorophyll, we were glad, to come across a weekly summer event in nearby Henderson, full of classic cars, folks enjoying the evening, and food trucks where we feasted before we headed home.