Spring hikes bring colorful, charming surprises

A group of snow plants is seen along the Kings Canyon upper waterfall trail in Carson City on Sunday, May 27.

A group of snow plants is seen along the Kings Canyon upper waterfall trail in Carson City on Sunday, May 27.

Step after step, I go deeper into the woods. Over a creek, through a marshy area thick with American bamboo. Each step takes me farther. Each step elevates me higher.

The elevation gain combined with my brisk pace has me gasping for air. As I catch my breath and quench my thirst, something catches my attention.

Sticking out like a sore thumb, the vivid red color is easily seen from afar. What is that up ahead — on the forest floor? It’s so bright, and at first, I think it’s a bird. Is it a cardinal? No it couldn’t be — those birds don’t live in our area.

Finally, as I approach it, the enthusiasm of finding something new and rare is overwhelming. It’s nothing I’ve seen before. It’s so majestic. I have no clue what it is.

It looks like something that doesn’t belong in the forest. Something out of this world — like an alien plant species. Growing about 8 inches above the ground, with strange, curved petals — this plant looks like a combination of a flower and tiny tree.

At first I thought it was a fungus, because of the color, shape, location of being in the forest and the fact I’ve never seen this before despite hiking in the area numerous times.

A fellow hiker saw my excitement and bewilderment and told me what I was looking at is called a snow plant, or snow flower. He said the one in front of us was quite impressive, and people worship these plants. I could tell why. The first group of snow plants I came across had stones carefully placed around them — like a rock garden.

As I continued with my hike, I noticed a few here and there scattered among the fallen pine needles and cones. None of them quite as splendid as the first cluster I saw. Some looked like small eggs and looked healthy. Others looked as though they had already gone through the season and died. But you can’t miss them if they’re protruding from the ground. The brilliant red contrasts against everything in the woods and you’ll notice them right away if they’re within sight.

After getting home, I did some research and found more information about the snow plant. According to the USDA Forest Service website, the name scientific name sarcodes sanguinea translates roughly to “the bloody flesh-like thing.” The plant doesn’t contain any chlorophyll and therefore it can’t photosynthesize. It’s a parasite of conifer trees. The plant lives off the roots of the conifers, so they’re always seen beneath or close to the trees. The plants are found in Nevada, California and Oregon.

The joy of discovering something new puts the thrill into hiking. What a worthwhile trip of exercise, discovery and enjoyment. I’ve noticed more snow plants on recent hikes and they truly bring a treat to the seasonal landscape. Combined with the wildflowers blooming everywhere, it’s one delightful time to be outside.


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