Red Splashes on the Snow—Unless It’s an Early Spring
“ONCE seen, never forgotten; the brilliant red is startling in the filtered sunlight against a dark background of forest duff.” So Western Forests, an Audubon Society nature guide, comments on the snow plant, Sarcodes sanguinea. It is even more startling if you catch it a little earlier, when it is pushing its way through lingering patches of snow. “An unusual plant that is stout, fleshy, entirely bright red, with bracts overlapping on lower stem and curled among racemes of flowers above,” Western Forests elaborates. Its range is limited to the mountainous coniferous forests of California and southern Oregon.
The snow plant is one of the saprophytes, a group that has no green matter, no chlorophyll, and therefore does not perform photosynthesis. Saprophytes live on dead or decaying plant or animal matter. Mushrooms, molds, and some other fungi and certain bacteria are saprophytes, but also in this group are some flowering plants. The snow plant is one of these.
Some of the saprophytic higher plants have become entirely dependent on certain fungi for food, which is called a mycorrhizal relationship—a mutually beneficial combination of a fungus (myco) and the root system (rhiza) of a higher plant. In such cases the roots of the saprophyte typically lack root hairs. The fungus takes over the job of absorbing minerals and moisture. The Encyclopedia Americana (International Edition) says: “The significance of mycorrhizae as symbiotic associations was discovered in the late 19th century by the German botanist Albert Bernard Frank as an offshoot of a study of truffle breeding for the Prussian government.”