As you hike down a trail in the early spring in the mountains, if you have any sense of smell, you may suddenly become aware of a wonderful scent in the air. The trees have not leafed out at all and you see no blooms anywhere. As you continue down the trail, the scent, vaguely like cloves, but lighter, reappears and you glance along the edge of the trail for a wildflower that you overlooked as you strolled along. Nothing can be seen.
You have most certainly encountered the smell of a plant that blooms at the same time ( more or less ) as the very rare Shortia, or Oconee Bells, found in the upper reaches of Lake Jocassee and its surrounding drainages. This inconspicuous plant is known by the name Pygmy Pipes ( Monotropsis odorata ), and, until recently, it was considered to be rare by most botanists. It is, however, quite prolific, but is quite difficult to locate unless one has good eyes and a moderate sense of smell. Many times it requires crawling on hands and knees to zero in on where it is emerging from the leaf litter. Only 2 inches or so in height, it is a non-chlorophyll plant that is the color of the dead leaves that surround it. Its multiple blooms hang downwards hiding the white and lavender petals, adding to the difficulty of locating the plant, or more likely, a small group of plants.
On warm, sunny days in early spring from early March to mid-April, when trees have not yet leafed out and sunlight strikes the leaf litter, the Pygmy Pipes pump out their wonderful, soft-smelling sweet odor. Even when the wind is calm the odor of a single plant may drift down a hillside and envelope a hiker as they make their way along a trail. The small flowering plants, which are seed-producers, occur singly or in small bunches of 10 – 25 “ stems “. They are associated with fungal mycelia in the soil from which they receive their nutrition, so picking them ( if you find them ) is a useless venture, so just enjoy the wonderful scent as you hike along on a warm, sunny spring day ! ~Heyward Douglass