Hidden delights


NATURE IS A VAULT OF SECRETS, its proportions unimaginable. Some of these secrets have been discovered, yet many remain to be unlocked.

Ali M. Abd-El Moneim and S. Varma

How do you react when you hear a new joke? Chances are that, after savoring its cleverness, you think secretly to yourself, “I could have thought of that one — if I had had the time”. Nature (a.k.a. works of God's hands) springs endless surprises on us from its “vault of secrets”. Are we tempted to treat her endless delights in the same way as a joke, imagining that, well, if only we had the time to ponder the possibilities we could have dreamed up some marvel we have newly become aware of? May it not be so. God lovers take a different approach; whenever they hear for the first time of some fascinating treat provided by nature they feel delighted to be given yet another insight into the fathomless depths of their heavenly Father's thought generator.

Let's be honest now; which of us would ever have dreamed up subterranean flowers? Believe it or not, some flowers live among worms. Consider their story.

Since creation reflects the infinite genius of God, creation's myriad marvels found in any given classifiable category often come in a smooth spectrum of forms. Thus, within the large-scale cosmological category we call “galaxies” you have a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. You have giant spiral galaxies and dwarf elliptical galaxies; you also find that in between these two ends of the spectrum just about every intermediate shape and size that can exist within the constraints of the fundamental laws of physics does exist. Some galaxies radiate inconceivably enormous amounts of energy in the form of light, radio waves, and so on, while others produce so little by comparison they are known as “ghost galaxies”. Such galaxies, consisting of huge amounts of elusive dark matter, may outnumber luminous galaxies like our own.1 Birds and dinosaurs can be considered the “extreme ends” of a spectrum of creatures with shared attributes. Yes, dinosaur fossils have been found that exhibit unmistakable evidence of dinosaurs that sprouted feathers. Evolutionists misinterpret this majestic truism of creation that attests to the endless ingenuity of the Supreme Thinker as evidence that one form turned into another form.

Birds and dinosaurs can be considered the “extreme ends” of a spectrum of creatures with shared attributes.

With such thoughts in mind, we should not find it surprising that the infinitely wise Creator who conceived of the surprising idea of burying some flowers completely out of sight also thought of making some which poke their cute little noses partly above ground level.

Partly-buried gems

Norma Pfeiffer, a botanist at the University of Chicago, had no idea what awaited her when she went hunting near Torrence Avenue for plants to show her students. The year was 1912 and she was searching in a low, wet prairie when her keen eye spotted a pale pearl lying on the surface of the moist ground in the shade of numerous shrubs. She quickly recognized it as a flower that was growing right out of the ground, without any stems or leaves attached. After carefully extricating it from the soil she took it to her colleagues for identification, but none of them had any idea what it was. Her Ph. D. on the little plant identified it as a member of an intriguing family of plants, the Burmanniaceae, which is found mainly in tropical forests in South America and Asia.

Thismia americana (Mark Mohlenbrock)
Today botanists recognize anywhere between five and sixteen genera in the Burmanniaceae family. Many species in this family have a most un-plantlike trait which they share with some other plants such as beechdrops, Indian pipes, coralroot orchids, broomrapes and dodders2 — they have no chlorophyll and therefore cannot photosynthesize their own food. They depend for their survival on fungi that penetrate their roots and ship in nutrients and water obtained from the breakdown down of soil detritus.

Pfeiffer's specimen proved to belong to the genus Thismia, of which the first described species was discovered in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1880s. Now considered to contain about thirty species, about twenty of these species have only yielded or or two specimens in spite of numerous searches.3 Pfeiffer collected specimens of her plant, named Thismia americana, over four seasons; since then nobody has seen a specimen in the wild! The hunt continues unabated, however. In the early 1990s an entire posse of botanists searched suitable sites near the original area for four seasons in a row, only to come home empty-handed every time in spite of great pains taken in preparation:

They prepared by scrutinizing a ghostly photograph of a specimen, ethereal and translucent — the Shroud of Turin of a vanished flower. They held clay models created by the staff artist at the Morton Arboretum. And they handled small beads, pea-sized and white to imitate Thismia blossoms, which were then scattered on four sites to test the likelihood that even a careful search would uncover the small flowers ( Thismia americana — A mystery that still haunts — and helps — the Calumet region).

Like many other Burmanniaceae, Thismias lack chlorophyll, and the entire plant, most of which takes the form of worm-shaped, branching roots that spread out horizontally, grows a few inches underground. As one would expect with subterranean plants, leaves are lacking, though some sport scales. What really sets these plants apart is the habit of flower growth. In mid-summer, Thismia americana pushed up its inch-long, tube-like flower towards the surface, but only the upper quarter emerged above the surface, according to Pfeiffer's description. This habit accords with Thismias found elsewhere in the world.

Thismia americana is one of only two temperate zone species. The other, Thismia rodwayi, commonly known as the fairy lantern, is found in eastern Australia and New Zealand. The author has been privileged to see a specimen collected by a friend living in the bush not far from here (see picture at head of article). She describes finding the plant:

In places the thick blanket of leaf litter had been scratched aside by birds or native animals searching for insects and fungi in the soil. In one such area a speck of bright red caught my eye and, after close inspection, I exclaimed excitedly “I think it's a Thismia!”4

A Thismia rodwayi teased from the ground

And it was. Unlike Thismia americana, which is described as “translucent white, with hints of pale blue-green stripes that deepened at the tip of the flower”, rodwayi is colored a pretty orange-red. In spite of the difference in color and the thousands of miles separating the two species, some botanists believed that americana and rodwayi were one and the same species, a view which has since been abandoned. But who knows? God just may have ensured the same species ended up on two different continents.


Can you spot the Thismia?

Specialists wonder how Thismias are pollinated. Nobody knows for sure, but many botanists believe that gnats are responsible,5 while some experts believe that birds are involved in pollinating at least some species.6 Some specimens are found with punctures in their sides and tiny fecal pellets inside, suggesting that some small insect facilitates the miracle of pollination. Undoubtedly each species has its own story to tell, a story that, when elucidated, will provide endless fascination for those attuned to the genius of God's works.

Underground orchids

Orchids come in a remarkable array of shapes and colors — over 18,000 in fact. Yet in spite of such tremendous variety, who would ever have suspected that any orchids would flower below ground? But God has done many things that men would never suspect. In 1928, a farmer digging post holes near Perth in Western Australia chanced upon a cluster of subterranean flowers. When botanists were called in, they realized this unusual bouquet was an orchid. In typical scientific fashion they conferred upon the flower the lackluster name of "Rhizanthella". A few years later, in 1931, a completely different underground orchid was unearthed on the other side of the continent. It was dubbed, equally unsalubriously, "Cryptanthenus". These are the only two flowers so far known to blossom underground. Enough specimens of Rhizanthella have been found to enable the raw facts of its life story to be elucidated. One facet of its life history, though, remains an enigma.

Like Thismia, Rhizanthella plants live wholly underground, and so they cannot obtain energy from the sun like other self-respecting plants do. Instead, they prey on the dead roots of a type of honey myrtle bush. Since it cannot digest the woody tissues of the roots by itself, it must rely upon the services of a middleman to perform this function. The middleman is a fungus called Rhizoctonia that is able to digest some wood. The fungal threads of Rhizoctonia penetrate the tissues of both the myrtle roots and the orchid. The threads that progressively invade the orchid are systematically killed and their contents digested. So the food flows from the myrtle's dead roots to the orchid via the fungus. There is no limit to God's genius.

Rhizanthalla gardneri
(Ron Heberle)

In early winter, the plant blooms, pushing up clusters of flowers toward the surface. Beneath a surface layer of dead leaves and other debris, cracks appear in the soil as this denizen of the dirt pushes upwards. However, the orchid flower never shows above the surface. Below the cracks, which are seldom more than one quarter of an inch wide, are eighty to one hundred burgundy-red flowers arranged in tight concentric rings.

Until 1981 nothing was known about the way in which Rhizanthella might be pollinated. Suggestions for likely candidates ranged from ants to small beetles. In 1981 a concerted campaign was launched by orchid enthusiasts in cahoots with Oxford Scientific Films to try to discover the little do-gooder that was responsible for carrying pollen from one plant to another. Miniature teepees were erected over a few of the plants in the hope of catching a pollinator when it emerged from the flower's lair. Vigilant observation over the course of a few days failed to witness any little creatures entering or leaving the cracks in the soil. Then the weather changed, and a multitude of insect life began buzzing around. A few ants and beetles were seen blundering into the orchid's underworld sanctuary. But disappointment was the order of the day. Upon emerging, none of them had any pollen adhering to them. But the disappointment suddenly transformed into excitement when a minute fly, less than one tenth of an inch long, popped up and out of a crack and became entwined in one of the teepees. Patience was finally rewarded. Close examination showed it was carrying brilliant golden pollinia (pollen sacs) on top of its swollen thorax.

However, proof was needed that these pollen sacs were indeed from the orchid in question, and not from some other flower visited earlier. Hence, the pollen was subjected to examination by scanning electron microscope. Bingo! The pollen grains on the fly proved to be identical to pollen taken directly from the orchid. The fly turned out to belong to the curious fly family called Phorida. Phorids are strange little hump-backed flies that are commonly found among rotting vegetation, and usually spend more time walking than flying. Some species don't have wings at all, and live in termite nests. To the same family belongs the mysterious "coffin fly". These flies are often found in coffins when bodies are exhumed. No one knows how they get there in the first place. This was the first time a phorid fly had been found to be a plant pollinator.

Phorids are strange little hump-backed flies that are commonly found among rotting vegetation, and usually spend more time walking than flying.

As mentioned earlier, one enigma remains in the story of Rhizanthella. The mystery is the manner in which Rhizanthella seeds are dispersed. Pollination is only a part of the life history of a flower. As a result of pollination, seeds are formed. (Which, in the case of orchids, amount to millions of dust-sized seeds per plant). God has invented a bewildering array of mechanisms for seed dispersal. As of this writing, scientists can only speculate on how seeds of Rhizanthella are disseminated. The flowers never poke up through the ground, so the seeds cannot be picked up by the wind. Maybe some animal digs up the mature flowers and eats them. If so, the seeds could be distributed in the animal's droppings.

Flowers above, flowers below

Although the orchids we have just described are the only known flowers to open fully underground, nature has more surprises up its sleeve — believe it or not, many flowering plants carry two different types of flower — one set above ground and a different one below the surface! (In fact, some plants have three different types of flower.7) And sometimes the fruits and seeds produced below the surface are different in kind from those produced in the heady freedom of the air above. About ten species of legume follow such a double life. In this case, unlike Rhizanthella, the subterranean flowers are self-pollinating, and never open. Experts describe these plants as “amphicarpic”. Oh the genius of our heavenly Father.

Farmers from Georgia and Florida will not feel favorably disposed to amphicarpic plants; one of them, tropical spiderwort, has become a noxious pest in many counties since its introduction into the USA in 1928, affecting cotton and peanut production in particular. In fact, it has become one of the world's worst weeds, considered a serious pest in 25 crops in 28 countries.8 Naturally, in its native home in tropical Asia and Africa it doesn't cause nearly as much angst. (Evolution is amazing, really. It supposedly gives the gold medal to any innovation that confers an advantage upon its owner, yet at the same time it supposedly prevents any mutant from running rampant in its home environment. Just how does it accomplish both these conflicting objectives?)

Tropical spiderwort aerial flowers (A.S. Culpepper)

Tropical spiderwort subterranean flowers (E. P. Prostko)

By contrast with the grief brought on by tropical spiderwort another amphicarpic plant, Mediterranean vetch, is seen as a blessing throughout Turkey, western Asia and northern Africa as a foil to land degradation. This legume enriches impoverished, dried soils through its nitrogen-fixing abilities. As a bonus, it produces nutritious pods both above and below ground. The subterranean flowers produce more pods than the aerial flowers, with about 80% of underground flowers producing pods compared with 50% for aerial flowers.9 Only God knows exactly why it works this way, but underground flowering occurs two weeks earlier than aerial flowering. Not a single aspect of creation just “happens”; every detail has been thought through by the Master Inventor.

May we prostrate ourselves before the Creator of all things, the only true God, the Father of Jesus Christ. His inventive genius knows no end.

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References and notes

1 Ghost Galaxies

2 Robert Mohlenbrock 11/87, Crowley's Ridge, Arkansas, Natural History, p. 86

3 Richard Saunders, Typification of the name Thismia fumida Ridl. ( Burmanniaceae ), Taxon 45, February 1996, p. 107

4 Sarah Lloyd, 04/05, Thismias — rare plants or not enough people looking?, The Natural News , p. 3

5 Thiele and Jordan April 2002 Thismia clavarioides (Thismiaceae), a new species of Fairy Lantern from New South Wales, Telopea

6 Thismia rodwayi (pdf file)

7 Zhang, Yang, & Rao May 2006, Comparative study on the aerial and subterranean flower development in Amphicarpaea edgworthii Benth. (Leguminosae: Papilionoideae), an amphicarpic species, International Journal of Plant Science , 943-949

8 Tropical Spiderwort Identification and Control in Georgia Field Crops

9 Bringing Hidden Feed to Surface

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