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Thismia Hunt 2011: Celebrating 20 Years of Conservation in Calumet

This was not your run-of-the-mill plant survey!  On Saturday, August 13, over 80 plant enthusiasts gathered for Thismia Hunt 2011, a day-long event organized by The Field Museum’s Division of Environment, Culture, and Conservation (ECCo).  Participants, young and old, amateur and professional, came to Calumet from across the Chicago Region to search for the elusive, mysterious, “holy grail” of Chicago botany: Thismia americana.

This tiny plant was discovered and described by University of Chicago graduate student, Norma Pfeiffer, in 1912. Pfeiffer was collecting plants at a prairie near 119th and Torrence Avenue in the Calumet Region when she stumbled across the previously unknown saprophytic plant. As it turns, the plant is a member of the mostly tropical plant family, Burmanniaceae, and its closest living relatives are known from Tasmania and New Zealand. To add to the mystery, the plant has not been recorded anywhere else in the world and not seen alive since Pfeiffer last saw it in 1916.

So why organize a survey for a plant not seen in nearly 100 years?  I guess you could say it is for the thrill of the hunt. As one participant explained, “Searching for Thismia felt like playing the lottery, I didn’t really think I could find it, but after a while, I was convincing myself it was actually going to happen to me.” Although this year’s searchers did not find Thismia, they did collect important botanical data at many survey sites. At least two new populations of threatened species were discovered and many new species were added to plant lists. 

Perhaps a more important, yet less tangible, outcome of the day was the sense of a community built among the participants. At the end of the survey as various teams reported the highlights from the day it started to storm with giant hail balls raining down on the shelter. No one ran to their cars or got up to leave early. Everyone just huddled a little closer under the picnic shelter and enjoyed the good company. It was a welcome reminder that Calumet is a place where you can find both world-class people and world class nature.

Photos: Laurel Ross.  Top: ECCo's Laura Milkert talks to Thismia Hunt participants about the Calumet Region.  Middle: A Thismia hutner at DuPont Dune and Swale.  Bottom: Gerould Wilhelm, author of Plants of the Chicago Region summarizes his groups' discoveries and highlights.