A snow plant gows in Plumas Eureka State Park. Photo by Terry Halvorson

Commentary

Garden Guru: A beautiful parasite

By From page A5 | June 14, 2017

My spring activities usually include hitting the Sierra trails for day hikes or overnight backpacking trips. As the snow melts the underlying mountain meadows and wildflowers spring to life and put on their annual show.

Mother Nature has postponed this year’s wildflower display with an abundant snow pack we so badly needed. When the snow finally does melt it promises to be a great year for wildflower lovers. I’ll share some of my favorite Sierra wildflower walks next month.

There is one early season Sierra wildflower we can enjoy now. It’s name is synonymous with the snow it is associated with. I’m talking about the unusual snow plant, Sarcodes sanguinea. I’ve always known them as the snow flower.

They are often mistaken as some sort of fungi feeding off the decaying litter on the forest floor. Their bizarre appearance makes one think they are some strange type of mushroom emerging from the soil. In reality the snow plant gets its nutrients from a fungi. The striking red color of the above ground part of the plant is made possible by its lack of chlorophyll necessary for other plants to produce food. The snow plant doesn’t make its own food. It steals it from a fungi in the soil called mycorrhizae, which are a beneficial fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with the conifer trees that grow around them. The mycorrhizae assist with water intake and provide minerals to trees in exchange for the products that the trees produce from photosynthesis. The snow plant’s roots absorb that food from the fungi, which makes it a parasite of the fungi and the trees. They do not grow in numbers large enough to cause any harm to the trees.

Since the snow plant depends on conifer trees to survive, it is the only place you will find them. They only grow in the conifer forests of California and western Nevada. People are amazed when they see them for the first time. They look more like something you would see growing on the set of the latest Alien movie. They resemble a fat, bright-red asparagus and usually are about 6 inches to a foot tall. They tend to grow in small colonies but it’s not unusual to come across just a single specimen. You can only see them in the early spring.  They complete their life cycle in a few weeks and wither in the warmer temperatures of summer. They can grow around any species of conifer tree but I tend to see more around our Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine forests. To find them look among the pine needle litter on the forest floor immediately after the snow melts.

Likely nearby places to find the snow plant now are in the Tahoe Basin, Crystal Lakes Basin off Icehouse road and the area above Sly Park reservoir along the Mormon Emigrant trail. As the snow recedes you will see them around the higher elevations. If you haven’t seen the strangely beautiful snow plant before I urge you to seek them out on your next spring trip to the Sierra. It is yet another gem of a plant that is unique to California.

Terry Halvorson is a certified arborist and nature enthusiast.

Terry Halvorson

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