Spindlewort is a bamboo-like plant that grows across the eastern reaches of the central desert plains. It is most well known for its characteristic piping howl that the wind produces as it blows past the plant.
Any traveler through the salt desert knows the spindlewort for its persistent piping howl. As most cultures have wind or reed instruments, each traveler describes it differently: frequently as eerie or dissonant-- almost like the instruments they know but definitely not right. In familiar terms, the sound is somewhat like an oboe, or flute, or wind over glass bottles, with rattling from loose bits of stalk and seedpods flapping in the wind. A single stalk produces myriad sounds from the wind passing over its unique set of openings (pitch and volume also depending on windspeed and direction); no two stalks are alike. A cluster of spindlewort in a high wind is a shrieking orchestra.
Spindlewort stems usually grow between 2 and 6 feet tall and begin flowering above 2 feet. They may grow as tall as 8 feet but frequently not much higher. Small adult specimens may be an inch in diameter; large ones four inches; rare giants as much as six. Individual stems may last for many years, and often remain standing for years after finally dying.
The stems are beigy-white, but flush greener during wetter conditions. The stems photosynthesize directly, and there are no apparent leaves. Roots are branched and extensive in the manner of grasses.
Habitat and Lifecycle
Spindlewort grows near or in intermittent pools of moisture. The plant is a common sight in the salt desert, and through the soggy mud coast to the east. It is found more rarely in the salt marshes to the south.
Spindlewort, like many of the plants in the area, is extremely resistant to salt and tolerant of droughts and long periods without water. When water does appear, the plant all but returns from the dead; dry bone-beige stalks flushing green with clorophyll and water.
During dry periods, the aboveground portions dry out and return to a tough, fibrous texture. Its roots can tolerate immersion in water for several hours (and thus survives on the tidal flats of the eastern mud coast), however, its slow growth and propensity to mold in constant immersion means it appears only infrequently, on larger, drier hillocks, in the southern salt marshes.
Like most plants in the salt desert, its cellular metabolism both tolerates and relies on the more unusual salts present in the area. Cultivated spindlewort requires special attention and soil additives to thrive.
Flowers appear with three long, elegant white-violet petals and are pollinated by any of several local insect families during intermittent calm and wet periods. The flowers appear remarkably quickly and are timed to local weather conditions; the conditions which make for easy flying also make for easy pollination, and all the spindleworts in an area will bloom at once. Flowers stay open until pollinated, or until the weather turns, often less than a day.
Once pollination is complete the pollen tubes must work their way to the ovules; this and the seed development process both take a long time and progress slowly, regardless of weather conditions. This is both boon and bane for the plant; slow reproduction continues regardless of the harsh weather of its native habitat but is too slow to compete outside of that habitat.
Seeds, once ready, have a plumy tuft that catches the wind, and aids the spread of the seeds. The tuft will fly until it impacts moisture, at which point the hygroscopic tuft filaments react with the water to form a weak glue. In a sufficient quantity of water, this glue simply dissipates. The seeds will sprout when conditions are favorable.
The characteristic howling sound with its complex harmonics is essential to the spread of the seeds. The vibrations set up by air currents are directly responsible for releasing the seeds. (Only under dry conditions: under moist or even raining conditions, the filaments holding the seeds in remain strong; they become brittle when dry.)
Though the plant is native to only a distinct geographic area, at the fringes of its native range variations in the sounds (and thus required wind patterns, and thus weather) are observable, as well as adaptations to the wetter climate in the east.
The plants themselves are inedible for humans and mostly everything else except small insects. Small scale bugs are the most persistent parasite (feeding upon the infrequent rising sap), and larger plant-chewing insects use spindlewort fragments and fibers as part of their burrows and nests.
The spindleworts are fairly tough, but irregular enough that they are rarely used structurally; instead they are used decoratively for their appearance and sound.
Locals use spindlewort like wind chimes and incorporate them into their architecture. The sounds they make are held to scare away bad influences (especially foreign travelers), and are a characteristic sound in the desert. As with many other wind pipes, they play irregularly. Much has been made, in divination, in sensing patterns and meaning in the sounds. (Much has also been made of the occasional burst of sympathetic vibration in the body or adornments of listeners; this sensation was often interpreted as a mystical event.)
Spindlewort is affiliated with the wind, and symbolic images of spindlewort are used to represent wind in artwork. It is considered unlucky to stuff the holes or otherwise impede the sound of the spindlewort. Enhancements (adding reeds, beads, holes) are fine.
The sound of spindlewort, as well as the jazz-like chaotic nature of the sound produced by a single stalk (let alone a cluster) have likely inspired much of the wild, improvisational nature of the local music, as well as the preponderance of wind instruments and hollow percussion instruments. (Spindleworts produce a hollow "tonk" sound when struck, the pitch depending on the structure of the plant and proximity to openings.)
Spindlewort may also be responsible for the sound architecture (architectural elements designed to produce sounds under certain conditions). Sound is considered significant and is as much paid-attention to in each building as the visuals are. (Possibly more; to foreign eyes the local structures tend to be both drab in color and garish in texture, due to exposure to corrosive elements.)
Spindlewort is often considered by travelers to be symbolic of the local culture, and its primary hypocrisy. Spindlewort is ubiquitous, persistent, and particular. It is aggressively discordant, unpredictable, and unpleasant. The locals revel in this; both in the exclusivity and alienness of their taste (which, in their minds, is refined, natural, and superior) and in the effect their taste has in driving foreigners out of their homeland out of sheer stubborn inhospitality disguised as open generosity.
Essentially, the locals have adapted so well to the area's harsh conditions that they tout their oneness with the local environment and consider it their defining feature; they are snobbish about their ability to live in harmony with the (terrible) elements, and will freely and joyfully offer foreigners total access to it, secure in the knowledge that their awful homeland will drive the foreigners right back out. In this, they see no falseness: they would behave the same way to their own kin-- only they would expect their own kin to survive the ordeal.
Offers to partake of the (disorienting, unpleasant) local music are abundant; offers to sample the local (unidentifiable) delicacies come from every household; offers to experience the local (dusty, spartan) accommodations follow every meal. No visit is complete without many (dangerous, unforgiving) cultural experiences, which are generously offered to you. If this hospitality is not to your liking, they will offer you more, until you are either forcefully adopted or you leave. (If the hospitality is to your liking... they will offer you more, anyway.)
Should you pass the (many, arbitrary, sudden) tests, you are adopted as close kin; should you fail, your reward is total spite. No mention is made of the mental gymnastics needed to justify this viewpoint. No argument will convince them otherwise. They view themselves as the simple extension of the harsh, unforgiving desert, that so indifferently sorts the living from the dead. Should you wish to test the desert, it will be offered to you, and they will watch, with a slight smile, as you die.
In this way, the discordant music of the spindlewort is the first greeting to foreigners when they arrive, and a warning to them that they are stepping into another world. It is the music that haunts their days and invades their dreams at night. It taunts them as they struggle, and is their constant companion as they search for treasures and find only the salt wind. And it mocks them as they finally leave, defeated, having suffered but won nothing.
This is the spindlewort. It is the desert wind.