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Snowflowers (Sarcodes sanguinea)

It’s possible to spend a lot of time in the Sierras without ever seeing a snowflower. They live most of their lives underground, on rotting logs in the dirt.

But they bloom quickly and briefly, not long after the snow melts, producing these spectacular bright red flowers:

The snowflower is the only representative of its genus, and is unusual due to being both a flowering plant and a saprophyte. (Yes, botanists will tell you to use the more accurate but unwieldy term ‘myco-heterotroph’.) What that means is that snowflowers get no energy through photosynthesis, like most plants do: they’re actually parasites on the fungi that break down rotting wood.

Yes, they really are this color:

I never even saw snowflowers until I lived in the Sierras full-time, because they come up in the time in between ski resorts closing and snow melting off the high alpine trails everyone comes to hike or bike. But now I look forward to them, because they tell me that summer is on its way.

(Photos taken on or about June 20. We had an extraordinarily cold and wet spring this year, with snowstorms all through May.)


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