THE WHITE SISTER DESERT PLANT ("GHOST DANCER")

APPEARANCE - TERRITORY - USAGES - REPRODUCTION - MYTH/LORE

The distinctively shaped White Sister is a beautiful desert plant which deserves her Nybelmarian title of "tree". Her spear-straight trunk reaches almost five peds in height, and her slender, stiff blades appear to be reaching upwards to the drooping ‘head’ of white blossoms that crowns the tree. Useful as a source of plant fibre and of supplementary food, the White Sister prefers hot sun and arid soil. In Sarvonia she is found mostly in the upper parts of the Ráhaz-Dáth Desert, but she is also reported to flourish in the sandy deserts of Aeruillin and the Zhunite areas of Nybelmar. Other names to refer to the White Sister are: Li’accuy, "Speartree", "Ghost Dancer" or Yu-chi.

Appearance. The plant begins her growth from a rosette of thin, stiff leaves. Each leaf can become three to four fores long, with a strong centre rib, raised on the underside of the leaf, and numerous fibres which run from the plumper base to the sharp tip also supporting it. The leaves, or ‘needles’ as they are sometimes called, point upwards from the rosette on the ground at a sharp angle, encircling the central bud which forms in the first year of the plant’s life.

The leaves are stiff enough that they have given the plant her alternate name of "Speartree", and are sometimes plucked and used as toy daggers (which can actually wound) by aggressive young boys. However, the plant generally has more beneficial uses, as you may see below…

It is not till the second year that the bud begins to stretch upwards on a firm greenish stalk. In the mature plant this ‘trunk’ is about the diameter of a healthy woman’s calf, or a strong man’s arm, and can range from three to five peds tall. The stalk does not branch out until the very top of the ‘tree’, where slim, fingerlong limbs splay in every direction for about three handslengths around the tree’s summit, in a roughly ovoid shape. In flower, as the tree is often observed to be, these limbs bear white, slipper-shaped blooms with a sharp, sweet scent. The flower cluster turns the formerly stark shape of the White Sister into a marvelous plume, worthy to decorate any noble’s garden – though few in Santharia can match her exactingly hardy requirements for constant hot sun and rocky, dry soil!

The flowers eventually shrink and drop away from the plant, usually falling onto the spiny tips of the leaves below. In their place small whitish nodules begin to swell, change colour under the inexorable sun, and ripen into the ‘Sister-beans’ or ‘Yu-chi-a’. Edible though rather sharp, the Yu-chi-a make a good emergency food source when stripped directly from the plant and eaten raw. Likewise, the plumper bases of the leaves may be sucked out to provide some nourishment and a bit of moisture at need.

Currently it is believed that there are at least three separate types of the plant, each specific to a different continent of Caelereth. However, the physical differences are small – see Territory, below, for notes on identifying the three types.

The White Sister grows for about five years at a time, springing her rosette in the first year, beginning her stalk growth in the second and continuing in the third, and blooming/berrying in the fourth. During her fifth year she will usually bloom one final time, but it is rare for any Sister-beans to result. After the fifth-year flowers fall away, one sees the stalk begin to dry out, the leaves yellow, and the entire plant simply desiccate. After its death the ‘skeleton’ of the plant will often, if undisturbed by passing animals or heavy winds, remain upright, whittled to nothing but ribs and fibre, a ghostly shell without life.

Often the individual ‘trees’ cluster in groups, forming little copses of three to twelve and casting pleasant puddles of shade in an otherwise unrelenting landscape. Where the plant grows thickly, one may see Yu-chi in every stage of her life span, from childish rosette to gloriously blooming maiden, to withered hag – a striking picture and a marvelous allegory of our own sentient lives.
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Territory. The White Sister grows best in hot, arid climates and in sandy or rocky soil with little nutrients for other plants. Thus she is found mostly in deserts or wastespaces such as the Sveltash and Ysthalinth of Aeruillin, or the Doimo Thirstlands. The one exception to this seems to be her preference for the Aj’Nuvic Grounds in the Santharian province of Truban, on the Sarvonian continent.

However, the samples of the Yu-chi (as she is known in Aeruillin) and Ghost Dancer (as the Nybelmarian Zunites say the Doimo name translates) which our Compendium herbalists have been able to compare with Sister plants from the Aj’Nuvic Grounds appear to be related but not identical plants.

Usages. The plant is primarily useful for the fibre content of her leaves. Plucked before drying out, soaked in an acrid solution which dissolves the flesh of the leaf, and then twisted on simple hand spindles, the long strings become a coarse "thread" slightly thinner, but rougher, than knitting wool. The Doimos’ “plant-fibre cloth” is woven from the Ghost Dancer, and both the Doimo and Orcristh of Nybelmar use the plant’s beans as a supplemental food source. Stewed or boiled with a bit of meat, the beans expand slightly and take on some of the sauce’s flavour; at the very least, eaten raw, they can sustain life and keep the belly from rumbling.

The Shendar pluck the blooms as decoration, enjoying their generous plumes and scent. They also claim, straight-faced, that the White Sister is the source of their famed ‘Shendar-silk’; this seems highly unlikely and is doubtless a false trail to keep the secret of the beautiful cloth’s production.

The Aeruillin Yu-chi seems to be considered a weed with unconvenient spines, good for nothing but children’s amusement (they break away the sharp leaves and play-fight with them – also, the beans can be chewed in the mouth if it has been too long since breakfast…)

It is not known what usage other races make, if any, of this plant. As she does not flourish in either forest or mountain, neither the elves nor the dwarves seem to have a word for her. It is possible that it serves as a foodstuff for the black orcs of Nybelmar, but that is only a conjecture and not based on any evidence.
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Reproduction. Not much more is known about the plant on other continents, but the Shendar say that the small bats of the area are particularly fond of the flowers’ scent as well and are often found diving about the White Sisters or even clinging to them in the dusk. Whether the bats are actually attracted to the flower, or to insects which flock to the blooms, apparently they transfer pollen on the soft fur of their bosoms, thus aiding the plants to become fertile.
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Myth/Lore. As the Doimo name translates to “Ghost Dancer”, there is doubtless a fascinating story or legend there, but our Compendium researcher who spoke to the Nybelmarnian ship’s captain (from whence we obtained our plant samples) was unable to procure further details. An Aeruillin woman was more forthcoming, with a little rhyme she remembered from childhood: “Yu-chi woochy, gissa smoochy, Ora pynee eyl sticky!” - Which she thinks was probably a childish distortion of: “Give us a smooch, or (with) a spine I’ll stick thee!”
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