Friday, 3 February 2017

Snowplant

Image: David Iliff
Sarcodes sanguinea
In the months of spring, mysterious spikes of bloody flesh point to the sky.

No, really!

Image: Dan and Raymond
Copse of corpse
Not really.

No, really!

Image: Jacob Kirkland
Pillars of blood-dripping flesh
Well, sort of...

It's Sarcodes sanguinea. Sarcodes meaning 'flesh-like', and sanguinea meaning 'bloody'.

Image: Jim Morefield
Flowers of flesh. Petals of blood
It only takes a glance to see where they get that name from. They look like flesh! Bloody flesh, at that. None of your sanitised, factory packed, sliced, diced and covered in a coat of golden breadcrumbs here. With Sarcodes, you see exactly where your meat comes from. It comes from the ground.

Mostly California. Snowplants live in coniferous forests some 1,000 to 3,100 metres (3,300 to 10,200 ft) up mountains in California and neighbouring areas of Mexico, Nevada and Oregon.

Image: Jimmy Harris
Devil eggs! Or budding Snowplants, all wrapped up in strap-like bracts
They're called Snowplants because you only see them when they flower in the spring, just after the snow has melted. That's when you get to see those sanguine spears, 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 in) tall.

It's rare for them to grow while the snow is still on the ground, so maybe the 'snow' part of the name isn't entirely accurate. Despite appearances, the 'plant' bit is perfectly accurate!

Image: Liam O'Brien
Evil, grim butterfly of death visits the Forest of Flesh
Snowplants have no use for sunlight. They have no chlorophyll at all and their leaves are like tiny scales. The spike is there purely for the flowers and fruit.

The spike is covered in lots and lots of dangling, bell-shaped flowers which burst from strap-like bracts, ready for pollination by insects. The fruits start out bright and fleshy but then become brown and brittle. The seeds inside are released through a little hole that opens in the fruit.

Image: Jon Sullivan
Fruit! Of blood and death
If that's all the spike is for, you might ask where the rest of the plant is. Where are the leaves? Where are the stems? Truth is, they don't need them! Snowplants are members of that bizarre subfamily of parasites known as Monotropoideae, along with Ghost Plants, Gnome Plants and others.

Like them, the Snowplant doesn't do its own photosynthesis. Instead, it lets conifer trees do all the hard work and steals the delicious results from them. Except they don't quite do that. Conifers have a sort of trading agreement with certain fungi in the soil. The fungi grow around the conifer's roots and provide that mighty tree with water and minerals. In return, the conifer provides sugars to the fungi.

Image: LadyofProcrastination
Bloody, flesh-like thieves. Why don't they steal some skin?
And then the Snowplant steps in. Their roots grow into the fungus and steal some of those hard-earned sugars like bandits lurking in the shadowy forests next to a trade route.

Can you believe that? It's not just a bloody Sarcodes, it's a bloody thief!

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