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Field Museum needs volunteers to help search for mystery plant

A search party organized by Field Museum will be hunting for thismiamericanwhich was discovered 1912 city’s Southeast Side last seen

A search party, organized by the Field Museum, will be hunting for thismia americana, which was discovered in 1912 on the city’s Southeast Side and last seen in 1916.

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:23AM

The Field Museum is mustering a search party, and they’re looking for help — lots of help.

Anyone who’s interested can help pick through the plant undergrowth on the Southeast Side in search of a prize: a rare botanical find.

Thismia americana — a mysterious and tiny plant no bigger than the fingernail on your pinky — has only been found in that part of Chicago and nowhere else in the world.

Oh, and it was last seen in 1916 before, inexplicably, it disappeared.

An unrivaled piece of botanical booty — the Holy Grail of area botanists — the nearly transluscent plant, with its bluish-green flowers, was discovered in 1912 when a University of Chicago student, Norma Pfeiffer, noticed the curious flora while walking in a prairie near Torrence Avenue and 119th Street.

Oddly, scientists determined that the plant is from a tropical family, its closest relative a species that’s native to Tasmania and New Zealand.

Scientists couldn’t find any more of the thismia, leaving them to draw whatever knowledge they could from the few samples catalogued at the Field Museum, some of them dried, others preserved in fluid.

“People have different theories on whether it was brought here and only lived a few years and died, but it hasn’t been documented anywhere else in the world, so no one really knows.” said Becky Schillo, a Field Museum conservationist.

Now, volunteers who will e paired with professional botanists will search for easier-to-spot plants known to have grown next to

thismia americana.

If they find any, they’ll get down on all fours and pick through the prairie undergrowth in search of the lost plant.

The hunt — organized by several conservation groups — will take place Saturday and is open to the public, though space is limited. Participants must register ahead of time at

The place where Pfeiffer found the plant has undergone development, so the searchers will scour sites within a five-mile radius, ranging from the Indiana sand dunes to small islands of biodiversity surrounded by industrial, residential and commercial development.

“Most people drive right past these spots on I-94 but never know they exist,” Schillo said.

The odds of finding the thismia plant are long, but Schillo said that’s what makes the possibility of finding it exciting.

“How many people can say they rediscovered a plant that’s been missing for nearly a century?” she said.

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