Plant of the Week

Moneses uniflora range map.
Moneses uniflora range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Moneses uniflora.
Close-up of the flower of Moneses uniflora. Photo by Al Schneider.

Closeup of the flower of Moneses uniflora.
Closeup of the flower of Moneses uniflora depicting the rook-shaped style and anther sacs. Photo by Al Schneider.

Moneses uniflora in habit..
Moneses uniflora in habit. Photo by Al Schneider

Wood Nymph (Moneses uniflora)

By Walter Fertig

To the ancient Greeks, nymphs were nubile female spirits associated with different locations or landforms. Wood nymph (Moneses uniflora) is a charismatic, circumboreal wildflower strongly associated with damp, mountainous forests. It is characterized by a single, slightly nodding white flower nearly 2 inches across with 5 thick petals, bright yellow stamens, and a bright green style and ovary. The flowers are quite fragrant and irresistible to bees, yet produce no nectar. Flowers are borne on a naked stalk above a basal rosette of oval leaves with lobed margins. The entire plant is no more than 4 to 6 inches high. It is often found in a tuft of moss or on rotting wood. “Moneses” is itself of Greek derivation and translates as “solitary delight”, which needs no further explanation.

The anthers of Moneses and related genera are unusual in opening by small, apical pores. When the flower is open, the anthers hang downward. Pollen is shed in clumps of four when large bumblebees visit the flower and shake the anthers by vibration of their wings (a phenomenon called “buzz pollination”). The deeply five-lobed stigma (which resembles an upside-down rook from a chess set) can then pluck pollen off the back of the next visiting bee. Wood nymphs can produce as many as 1000 seeds per fruit, suggesting to researchers that this mode of pollination is extremely efficient.

Native American tribes used Wood nymph as a cold remedy and for skin problems. More recently, scientists have discovered that stem and leaf extracts from the plant appear to be useful antibiotics against several mycobacteria, including the organism that causes tuberculosis.

Moneses and its relatives were once placed in their own family, the Pyrolaceae, based on their unusual anther morphology, but are now regarded as members of the large heath family (Ericaceae). In North America, wood nymph can be found from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to New York, Ohio, South Dakota, New Mexico, and California.

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