Snow plants have been abundant in the Sierra Nevada this spring. Every time I see one, the bright crimson plant reminds me of the book Where the Red Fern Grows, although the snow plant is nothing like a fern.
In fact, snow plants are nothing like most plants- they are unique little beings. They have no chlorophyll, so they are unable to make food from sunlight. Instead, they are parasites, feeding on soil fungi. According to John Muir Laws in The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, “these fungi may in turn be connected to the roots of green plants with which they exchange sugar, water, or nutrients. Thes mycotrophic (fungus eating) plants may receive sugars from the photosynthetic work of neighboring plants through a fungus bridge.”
Lynn and Jim Wilson and Jeff Nicholas, in Wildflowers of Yosemite, note that the snow plant “initially is pyramidal in shape, with long fingerlike twisting scales wrapping the plant in its single color of flaming red to salmon pink. As the plant matures, the scales loosen and part, revealing long, delicate, urn-shaped blossoms 1/2 to 3/4 inch long.”
Snow plants have been blooming at about 4000 feet for several weeks and are beginning to emerge now at higher elevations. Snow plants are native to California, Oregon, and are found as far south as Baja, California. According to the Botanical Society of America’s Parasitic Plants Pages, “nobody knows how they are dispersed from one place to another. In order to grow, they must become buried in the leaf litter of a conifer forest. Probably they need to contact particular fungi in order to germinate. The geographical range of the snow plant is probably limited by the extent of the conifers and the fungi that the snow plant depends upon.”
John Muir Laws writes that”while both the host green plant and the fungi benefit from their mycorrhizal (fungus-root) relationship, the odd reddish plants are freeloaders.”
“Freeloaders” though they may be, snow plants are unique, fascinating and beautiful in their own right. They surface seemingly from nowhere, churning the soil around them in their zest for life, brightening the otherwise drab humus of the forest floor. They are protected in California, and Wildflowers of Yosemite makes the pertinent reminder that “great care needs to be taken with this scarce and unusual plant, so we remind you to look, don’t touch and leave them for someone else to enjoy now and in the future” (Wilson, Wilson and Nichols).