Snow plant: Lake Tahoe’s scarlet gem in spring

Sarah Hockensmith

Have you been walking through Lake Tahoe forests in late spring and spotted a bright red plant that didn’t seem to belong there?

Almost alien looking, the snow plant, also known as Sarcodes sanguinea, is native to the Sierra Nevada and is found on the forest floor near conifers.

Emerging just after the snowmelt, the hard-to-miss plant is a pleasant reminder that summer is just around the corner.

Here are some answers to common questions about this mysterious scarlet gem of Tahoe.

What is a snow plant?

Although often confused as a mushroom, a snow plant is in fact a plant. It produces flowers and is pollinated by many different animals including hummingbirds.

Its Latin name, Sarcodes sanguinea, translates to “resembling flesh” and “blood red,” a fitting yet vivid description of this plant growing among the shadows on the forest floor.

They can grow to about a foot tall and contain 20-30 bell shaped flowers. Despite their short stature, famous naturalist John Muir described the snow plant as a “bright glowing pillar of fire.”

How does it grow?

Most plants get their energy from the sun through photosynthesis; however, snow plants do not, as they lack chlorophyll production (green pigment).

Instead, they steal their food. Snow Plants are what is known as mycoheterotrophic, meaning they acquire their nutrition by parasitizing soil fungi. Most plants have relationships with root fungi, which help the plants absorb nutrients and water. For their efforts, the plants provide sugars to the fungi (from photosynthesis).

Essentially, snow plants parasitize these fungi, stealing nutrients from them, and indirectly stealing nutrients from the trees. Does this mean snow plants hurt trees? Not really, as the plant uses little energy compared to the tree, therefore hardly affecting it.

Are there any other local plants like snow plants?

Yes. Although no other plant displays the brilliant red, there are a quite few different types of fungi-parasitizing plants in Tahoe.

We have several species of orchid that feed in the same way as snow plants, namely the Phantom Orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae), Spotted Coral Root (Corallorhiza maculata), and Striped Coral Root (Corallorhiza striata).

Other plants that are easier to find and behave the same way include Pine Drops (Pterospora andromedea) and Sugarstick (Allotropa virgata).

Is it true that snow plants are protected by state or federal laws?

No, though it is illegal to pick any plants or flowers in a state park or national forest without a permit. However, snow plants are so unique that locals and tourists alike do not want these forest treasures stepped on or harmed, and therefore “protect” them with pinecone and rock shrines.

Snow plants provide a fun conversation starter, beauty in our backyards, and a promise of warmer weather ahead, so perhaps to some people, a small shrine is the appropriate response to a sighting.

That being said, if you find a beautiful flower, leave it be for others to see.

What if I have more questions?

If you have questions about plants, birds, animals, or anything nature, you should ask your local naturalists at the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, by emailing or reaching out to them on Facebook (Tahoe Institute for Natural Science) or Instagram (TahoesNaturalists).

Sarah Hockensmith is the outreach director at Tahoe Institue for Natural Science

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