(Resembling Flesh, Blood Red)
Snow Plant or Snow Flower
Family: Ericaceae (Madrone family) Sub-Family: Monotropoideae (Indian Pipe family)
The Snow Flower. Back in the day, when it still snowed in Tahoe, and the pine-needled humus would have a layer of snow in the Spring, I would look forward to this brilliant red being that would erect from the earth surface. The snow is mild now, but this crimson beauty still comes up, yet the contrast against the white of the snow is missed. A fitting plant to talk about on this blog being that although it is a plant, it is a saprophytic plant, getting its nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi rather than partaking in photosynthesis, as green leaved plants do. The Snow Flower is most often seen near conifers, Ponderosa Pine, Jefferey Pine, Sugar Pine, etc. It is found here because it can’t live without them – a very one-sided and secretive connection. It is not directly parasitic to the tree, but it feeds on the trees relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi and the conifer have a mutualistic relationship; the fungus provides minerals and other earthly delights for the tree, while the tree provides sugars for the fungus – the Snow flower then gets it’s nutrients from this fungi.
John Muir writes of Sarcodes in 1912:
“The snow plant is more admired by tourists than any other in California. It is red, fleshy and watery and looks like a gigantic asparagus shoot. Soon after the snow is off the ground it rises through the dead needles and humus in the pine and fir woods like a bright glowing pillar of fire. In a week or so it grows to a height of eight or twelve inches with a diameter of an inch and a half or two inches ,then its long fringed bracts curl aside, allowing the twenty or thirty five lobed, bell-shaped flowers to pen and look straight out from the axis. It is said to grow up through the snow on the contrary, it always waits until the ground is warm, though with other early flowers it is occasionally buried or half buried for a day or two by spring storms. The entire plant-flowers, bracts, stems, scales, and roots-is fiery red. Its color could appeal to one’s blood. Nevertheless, it is a singularly cold and unsympathetic plant. Everybody admires it as a wonderful curiosity, but nobody loves it as lilies, violets, roses, daisies are loved. Without fragrance it stands beneath the pines and firs lonely and silent, as if unacquainted with any other plant in the world; never moving the wildest storms; rigid as if lifeless, through covered with beautiful rosy flowers.”
In the New York Medical Eclectic, Volume 6, Issue 10 (1879):
“The Sow Plant, a Flower of Strange Beauty.
One of the Grandest objects which meets the eye of the traveler in our mountains is the exquisite plant, the Snow Plant of the Sierras-the Sarcodes sanguinea of John Torrey, the botanist. It is an inhabitant only to the higher Sierras, being rarely found below an altitude of 4,000 feet, and its glorious crimson spike of flowers may be seen early in May, forcing itself through the snows which at that period cling about the sides of our pine forests. The portion of this plant which is visible above the soil is bright rosy crimson in color and presents the very strongest contrast to the dark green of the pines shimmer of the snow. Its root is succulent, thick, and abundantly free of moisture, attaching itself to the roots of other plants, principally to the species of the pine family…the Deer are exquisitely fond of it, and it is not an uncommon circumstance to find a number of the plants uprooted and robbed of the fleshy part of their underground growth…”
Food and Medicine
I have always been told, since I was a child, to not mess with the Snow Flower. I never knew why exactly, in fact I thought maybe it was poisonous. The real reason is that it only grows around the Sierras and it is a rare and protected plant – although I will talk about its history of use as food and medicine, it would be wise to pocket this information for your own edification and choose a different plant for these uses, that is not as rare.
The Snow Flower, is in fact edible and can be cooked like asparagus.
I can deduce from the ethnobotanical uses that it has an analgesic effect as well as soothing epithelial tissues. There is documentation of a decoction of the leaves and stem to treat ulcerated sores, irritated skin, and toothaches. The docterine of signatures would suggest its use as a blood tonic, and a decoction has been used in this way. Some Native Americans also dried and powdered this plant to relieve toothaches and other mouth pains.