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The Mystery of Thismia Americana, the Parasitic Plant Found Only in Chicago

In 1912, Norma Pfeiffer, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, discovered a new species of plant growing in the wetlands near Chicago's Lake Calumet. It spent most of its life living off underground fungi. Nothing like it existed anywhere else in the United States, but there were similar species in the tropics. Pfeiffer named it Thismia americana, and wrote her doctoral dissertation on it.   

Pfeiffer was excited to uncover much more about her mystifying botanical outlier. In her thesis, she expressed hope that she could grow the plant in laboratory settings.

"Up to date, the few attempts at germinating the tiny seeds have been fruitless. It is to be hoped that a larger harvest may give a better opportunity for positive results," she wrote.

But two years later, T. americana vanished, a disappearance that coincided with the building of a barn in the vicinity. It has not been spotted since.

Pfeiffer's plant has never been spotted in the wild again, but it left many mysteries behind. With only tropical relatives, how did it ever come to be in Chicago? How long had it been there? What made that particular wetland a good environment for it? And why did it go extinct in 1914? You also have to wonder about how many other species evolve and then go extinct before we ever find a trace of them. Read about the mysterious T. americana at Real Clear Science.

(Image credit: Norma E. Pfeiffer/Botanical Gazette via JSTOR)

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