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Pyrolas, Jewels of the Forest

By Sara Wright

This morning it was cool and gray, a perfect time to check to see if one of my favorite late-blooming woodland wildflowers, Pyrola elliptica, had opened her buds in preparation for pollination. Last week the stalks held pure white, tightly-closed pearls. Today, most all of my plants are blossoming, each waxy flower a study in astonishing beauty, probably encouraged by the recent heat wave and rain. These plants spread by underground threads, forming oval rosettes of three leaves or more that like close neighbors. In early September they bear reddish fruits.

I never planted these wildflowers; like so many others, they simply appeared here when the conditions were right. One advantage of rewilding is that, by allowing nature to take the lead, s/he determines when and where a wild plant will grow best. What I do is pay close attention to the subtle changes here that might indicate that a new species might appear. I walk every inch of this land three out of four seasons a year, and, when I note a natural break in the canopy because trees have fallen, I figure new plants of some kind will emerge at some point. Three years ago, they did. First, a couple of white lady slippers popped up; then the pyrolas emerged.

There seems to be a lot of confusion around this plant. Some websites call it a wintergreen which strictly speaking it is not. However, the two are in the same genus - Ericaceae. To complicate matters, there are a few pyrolas in Maine, and a couple look so similar that it is easy to confuse them. The round leaf pyrola rotundifolia is so like elliptica that sometimes I get them confused unless I see the two together. Both have flowers that point downward when open, and all are fragrant, including asarifolia. The latter is rare in Maine, but I have found some in a couple of my favorite untrammeled woodlands.

Here, mine grow under a mixed canopy above the brook where the conditions must be just right because I have a large carpet of these plants, most with spikes of waxy flowers that seem to open all at once. The rosette of basal leaves varies from three or more, and a single stalk supports the unopened pearls. The entire plant is maybe six inches tall, and most of it is the stalk.

Usually, it is necessary to spend time perusing the forest floor, walking slowly to find the plants even when they are in bloom. In some woodlands I have found pyrolas near streambeds. I note that the clusters that I see seem to prefer acidic soils under a mixture of conifers and hardwoods. I have seen the flower spikes anywhere from June through mid-August. It all depends upon the biome.

Do take the time to get down on your knees to put your face in those fragrant flowers with their golden centers if you find one, but please don’t pick them. Pyrolas are becoming scarcer due to heavy foot traffic, the use of recreational machines, and other habitat destruction, especially logging. In Maine some pyrolas are on the species of concern list; one is considered endangered. We surely don’t want to lose these tiny jewels of our forest.

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