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THE OUTDOORS DIGEST | FIELD GUIDE

Snow plant

June 14, 2005|David Lukas

[ SARCODES SANGUINEA ]

One of the most beautiful and fascinating flowers in the United States is the snow plant of California's Sierra Nevada and peninsular ranges. Growing among melting snowbanks in shaded fir forests, this fungus flower lacks chlorophyll and was long thought to feed on decaying organic debris. In fact, the snow plant taps into a scarcely exploited niche: the web of nutrients that flows between underground fungi and tree roots. Though the snow plant may be a parasite on this web, new evidence shows that fungi and tree roots grow in profusion around snow plants, suggesting that the flower offers some benefit in exchange.

NATURAL HISTORY

Unlike other fungus flowers that are relatively colorless, the snow plant is a flamboyant red. It uses red anthocyanin pigments to collect warmth from the sun.

KEY CHARACTERISTICS

Has the appearance of a bright red, fleshy conifer cone, but is a member of the heath family. Its flowers look like blueberry and huckleberry blooms.

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