Hunting the Rare Snow Plant 2018

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“In search of a rare, red, plant hiding in the woods!”

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

During a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) a few days ago with my mom, I spotted an extremely vivid plant growing out or the pine needles littered all over the forest floor. The elevation where I discovered this strange plant was 7,452 feet (2,271 m). There were no others like it in the vicinity, so I snapped a few reference photos with my iPhone 6s camera and decided to make an effort to return within a few days. I learned that the strange plant is referred to as a “Snow Plant” or “Snow Flower”. My return date landed on Memorial Day weekend, so I wasn’t going to be alone.

“Low moving clouds tumble and spill over the lowest barriers in the San Gabriel Mountain range.”

Islip Saddle

GPS Coordinates: 34.3569613° N, -117.8593727° W

I drove to the PCT trailhead at Islip Saddle from the Mojave Desert by way of the Pacific Crest Highway (Highway 2). It was mostly a sunny day until I started to gain significant elevation. What looked like minor wisps of cloud activity from the high desert soon became large, crashing swaths of clouds against the southern facing slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. The places along the mountainous barrier where the elevation was less than 6,500 feet (1,981 m) such as Vincent Gap and Islip Saddle were areas where the thick, atmospheric soup poured itself over the low altitude barriers.

Sections of the Angeles Crest Highway which passed through these cloudy ‘overflow’ zones were doused in a dense fog, often times becoming a complete “White out” so I had to proceed with caution. There was no speeding in these areas as commons sense should dictate. The drive itself was absolutely beautiful and I was in no rush to get there anyway.

“The Angeles Crest Highway gets the fog treatment for the day.”

The parking for this section of the PCT is on the north side of the Angeles Crest Highway where old Highway 39 (aka The Cliff Hanging Highway) meets Highway 2. The parking here is limited, but it’s not terribly crowded as it is an often overlooked place to venture. As with all other parking areas along Highway 2, you need to display an Adventure Pass which you can get for either the day or the year. I always purchase the Annual Interagency Pass which not only allows me to park anywhere an Adventure Pass is required, but allows me free entry to all National Parks in the U.S. for mere $80 bucks a year. “Definitely worth the expense if you frequent the outdoors like I do.”

“This place was more popular today than normal.”

The trailhead for the PCT is on both sides of the Angeles Crest Highway at this point, but I was heading for the trailhead on the south side just a few steps east of the highway 39 junction. The fog here was patchy, but this is the Islip Saddle where the lowest point of the mountain barrier allows the clouds to pour through. The temperature was a bizarre 44 ºF (6.6 ºC) which is very unusual for this time of year. There also seemed to be a lot more hikers here than normal, but it was Memorial Day weekend after all, so it’s to be expected.

“These certified PCT trail markers let you know you’re on the right path.”

“I brought my lighter Salomon Ultra 3’s this time for a more comfortable hike.”

“The start of the PCT heading south was covered in a fog.”

“The trail gets a bit narrow and rocky, but it doesn’t stay that way for long.”

As I made my way up, I encountered a rather interesting plant. It was like a soft, fern-like bush with small, white buds that were ready to bloom. They were lined up all along the trail, so I got down to take a closer look. For this venture I brought my big camera gear, my Canon 5D MKII and three lenses. My Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM II, Canon 50mm f/1.2L USM, and my Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro lens. The equipment was heavy, but would yield some image results that are far superior to what my iPhone 6s shot the last time I was here.

Yarrow – (Achillea millefolium)

Achillea millefolium, commonly known as yarrow /ˈjæroʊ/ or common yarrow, is a flowering plant in the family Asteraceae. It is native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere in Asia, Europe, and North America. It has been introduced as a feed for livestock in places like New Zealand and Australia, where it is a common herb of both wet and dry areas, such as roadsides, meadows, fields and costal places. In New Mexico and southern Colorado, it is called plumajillo (Spanish for ‘little feather’) from its leaf shape and texture. In antiquity, yarrow was known as herbal militaris, for its use in stanching the flow of blood from wounds. Other common names for this species include gordaldo, nosebleed plant, old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, thousand-leaf, and thousand-seal.

Achillea millefolium is an erect, herbaceous, perennial plant that produces one to several stems 0.7-3.3 ft (0.2-1 m) in height, and has a spreading rhizomatous growth form. Leaves are evenly distributed along the stem, with the leaves near the middle and bottom of the stem being the largest. The leaves have varying degrees of hairiness (pubescence). The leaves are 2.0-7.9 inches (5-20 cm) long, bipinnate or tripinnate, almost feathery, and arranged spirally on the stems. The leaves are cauline, and more or less clasping.

The inflorescence has 4 to 9 phyllaries and contains ray and disk flowers which are white to pink. The generally 3 to 8 ray flowers are ovate to round. Disk flowers range from 15 to 40. The inflorescence is produced in a flat-topped capitulum cluster and the inflorescences are visited by many insects, featuring a generalized pollination system. The small achene-like fruits are called cypsela. The plant has a strong, sweet scent, similar to that of chrysanthemums.

Yarrow grows from sea level to 11,500 ft (3,500 m) in elevation. The plant commonly flowers from May to July. Common yarrow is frequently found in the mildly disturbed soil of grasslands and open forests. Active growth occurs in the spring. The plant is native to Eurasia and is found widely from the UK to China. In North America, both native and introduced genotypes, and both diploid and polyploid plants are found. It is found in every habitat throughout California except the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. Common yarrow produces an average yield of 43,000 plants per acre, with a total dry weight of 10,500 lbs. (Source: Wikipedia)

One section of the hike reveals old Highway 39 which has been closed for decades. Nowadays, only city and emergency vehicles have access to this road. Typically you can see the deep canyon below, but the only thing visible through this dense cloud layer is the distant summit of Mt. Wilson in the background. I was treading carefully here because I received a sting to the back of my neck by a goddamn yellow jacket two autumns ago. It was pretty painful for a couple of hours, like a bad muscle cramp. I wasn’t going to take that chance again, so I minimized my stay at this spot.

“Like a road into the clouds, Highway 39 vanishes into the void.”

“After the first ascending portion of trail, you end up in a vast meadow.”

Cup-Leaf Ceanothus – (Ceanothus perplexans)

Ceanothus L. is a genus of about 50 – 60 species of nitrogen-fixing shrubs or small trees in the family Rhamnaceae. Common names for members of this genus are California lilac, wild lilac, and soap bush. “Ceonothus” comes from a Greek word meaning “spiny plant”, Ancient Greek: κεάνωθος (keanōthos), which was applied by Theophrastus (371-287 BC) to an Old World plant believed to be Cirsium arvense.

The genus is endemic to North America, with the center of its distribution in California. Some species (e.g., C. americanus) are found in the eastern United States and southeast Canada, and others (e.g. C. coeruleus) extend as far south as Guatemala. Most are shrubs 1.6-9.8 ft (0.5-3 m) tall, but C. arboreus and C. thyrsiflorus, both native to California, can be small multi-trunked trees up to 20-23 ft (6-7 m) tall.

The majority of the species are evergreen, but the handful of species adapted to cold winters are deciduous. The leaves are opposite or alternate depending on species, typically they are 0.4 – 2 inches (1-5 cm) long, simple, and mostly with serrated margins. Ceanothus leaves may be arranged opposite to each other on the stem, or alternate. Alternate leaves may have either one or three main veins rising from the base of the leaf. The leaves have a shiny upper surface that feels “gummy” when pinched between the thumb and forefinger, and the roots of most species have red inner root bark. The flowers are white, greenish-white, blue, dark purple-blue, pale purple or pink, maturing into a dry, three-lobed seed capsule.

The flowers are tiny and produced in large, dense clusters. A few species are reported to be intensely fragrant almost to the point of being nauseating, and are said to resemble the odor of “boiling honey in an enclosed area”. The seeds of this plant can lie dormant for hundreds of years,[citation needed] and Ceanothus species are typically dependent on forest fires to trigger germination of their seeds. Fruits are hard, nutlike capsules. (Source: Wikipedia)

Clustered along the same stretch of the Cup-Leaf Plants were large groupings of the all too familiar Manzanita trees. There is no mistaking their shiny, copper-colored bark. The berries of these trees were in full bloom and from what I know, all for the exception of a few species of Manzanita have edible berries. Until I know exactly which species this is however, I will spare myself the possibility of illness if they turn out to be the inedible kind.

Manzanita “Little Apple” – (Arctostaphylos)

Manzanita is a common name for many species of the genus Arctostaphylos. They are evergreen shrubs or small trees present in the chaparral biome of western North America, where they occur from Southern British Columbia and Washington to Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in the United States, and throughout Mexico. Manzanitas can live in places with poor soil and little water. They are characterized by smooth orange or red bark and stiff, twisting branches. There are 105 species and subspecies of manzanita, 95 of which are found in the Mediterranean climate and colder mountainous regions of California, ranging from ground-hugging coastal and mountain species to small trees up to 20 ft (6 m) tall. Manzanitas bloom in the winter to early spring and carry berries in spring and summer. The berries and flowers of most species are edible.

The word manzanita is the Spanish diminutive of manzana (apple). A literal translation would be little apple. The name manzanita is also sometimes used to refer to species in the related genus Arbutus, which is known by that name in the Canadian area of the tree’s range, but is more usually known as madroño, or madrone in the United States. Native Americans in Northern California made a tisane from manzanita leaves to treat poison oak rash. The leaves contain chemicals with a mildly disinfectant quality, and can be used for mild urinary tract infections.

The berries are a good food, as they can be harvested en masse and stored. Once stored and dried, the berries can be ground into a coarse meal. The berries can be eaten ripe (when red) or green for a slightly sour taste. They are good eaten alone, or used as a thickener or sweetener in other dishes. Fresh berries and branch tips can be soaked in water to make a cider. Native Americans used Manzanita leaves as toothbrushes. During World War II, Manzanita root burls were used as an expedient native material to make smoking pipes due to its relation and similar fire-resistant properties to then-unavailable imported briar. Labeled as “Mission Briar”, it was harvested for the remainder of the war, stopping soon after when supplies of imported briar once again became available.

Manzanitas are extremely useful as ornamental plants in gardens in the western United States and similar climate zones. They are evergreen, highly drought-tolerant, have picturesque bark and attractive flowers and berries, and come in many sizes and growth patterns. Arctostaphylos columbiana, for example, is hardy enough to be used for highway landscaping in western Oregon and Washington. Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’, A. uva-ursi (the Bearberry), and other low-growing manzanitas are extremely valuable evergreen groundcovers for dry slopes. Larger varieties, such as Arctostaphylos. ‘Dr. Hurd,’ can be grown as individual specimens, and pruned to emphasize the striking pattern and colors of the branches. They prefer light, well-drained soil, although the low-growing ground covers will tolerate heavier soils.

Manzanita branches are popular as decoration, due to their unique shape, color, and strength when dried. Florists sometimes use them as centerpieces at wedding receptions and other events, often adding hanging votive candles, beaded gems and small flowers to them. The wood is notoriously hard to cure, mostly due to cracking against the grain, giving it few uses as lumber. The slow growth rate and many branchings further decrease the sizes available. Some furniture and art employ whole round branches, which reduces cracking and preserves the deep red color.

The dead wood decays slowly and can last for many years, on and off the plant. Sunlight smooths and bleaches manzanita to light grey or white, rendering it superficially akin to animal bones. Because of this and the stunted growth of many species, manzanita is often collected in its more unusual shapes, giving it the nickname mountain driftwood. Manzanita wood is also used as perches for parrots and other large pet birds. The branches of the larger species are extremely long-lasting for this purpose. Some aquarium keepers use sandblasted manzanita as driftwood in planted aquaria because of its attractive forked growth and its chemical neutrality.

If properly cleaned and cured, it holds up well over extended periods of submersion. The wood is also resistant to the leaching of tannins into the water column, a problem often found with other aquarium driftwoods. When used as driftwood, manzanita must often be either weighted down for several weeks or soaked first to counteract the wood’s natural buoyancy when it has been dried and cured. The green wood does not float.Manzanita wood, when dry, is excellent for burning in a campfire, barbecue, fireplace, or stove. It is dense and burns at a high temperature for long periods. However, caution should be exercised, because the high temperatures can damage thin-walled barbecues, and even crack cast iron stoves or cause chimney fires. (Source: Wikipedia)

“I was leaving the meadow behind and entering the dense forest ahead.”

“Sections of the trail had a tendency to get rather narrow, but still navigable.”

“It wasn’t long before the highway below gave me a sense of just how much elevation I gained.”

Grape Soda Lupine – (Lupinus excubitus)

Lupinus, commonly known as lupin or lupine (North America), is a genus of flowering plants in the legume family, Fabaceae. The genus includes over 200 species, with centers of diversity in North and South America.Smaller centers occur in North Africa and the Mediterranean. They are widely cultivated, both as a food source and as ornamental plants.

The species are mostly herbaceous perennial plants 0.98 – 4.92 ft (0.3–1.5 m) tall, but some are annual plants and a few are shrubs up to 9.8 ft (3 m) tall. An exception is the chamis de monte (Lupinus jaimehintoniana) of Oaxaca in Mexico, which is a tree up to 26 ft (8 m) tall. Lupins have soft green to grey-green leaves which may be coated in silvery hairs, often densely so. The leaf blades are usually palmately divided into five to 28 leaflets, or reduced to a single leaflet in a few species of the southeastern United States. The flowers are produced in dense or open whorls on an erect spike, each flower 0.4 – 0.8 inches (1-2 cm) long. The pea-like flowers have an upper standard, or banner, two lateral wings, and two lower petals fused into a keel. The flower shape has inspired common names such as bluebonnets and quaker bonnets. The fruit is a pod containing several seeds.

The legume seeds of lupins, commonly called lupin beans, were popular with the Romans, who cultivated the plants throughout the Roman Empire; hence, common names like lupini in Romance languages. Seeds of various species of lupins have been used as a food for over 3,000 years around the Mediterranean and for as long as 6000 years in the Andean highland. Lupins were also used by many Native American peoples such as the Yavapai in North America. The Andean lupin or tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis) was a widespread food in the Incan Empire; but they have never been accorded the same status as soybeans, dry peas and other pulse crops.

The pearl lupin of the Andean highlands of South America, Lupinus mutabilis, known locally as tarwi or chocho, was extensively cultivated, but no conscious genetic improvement other than to select for larger and water-permeable seeds seems to have been made. Users soaked the seed in running water to remove most of the bitter alkaloids and then cooked or toasted the seeds to make them edible, or else boiled and dried them to make kirku. Spanish domination led to a change in the eating habits of the indigenous peoples, and only recently has interest in using lupins as a food been renewed.

Some lupins contain certain secondary compounds, including isoflavones and toxic alkaloids, such as lupinine and sparteine. With early detection, these can be removed through processing, although lupins containing these elements are not usually selected for food-grade products. A risk of lupine allergy exists in patients allergic to peanuts. Indeed, most lupin reactions reported have been in people with peanut allergy. Because of the cross-allergenicity of peanut and lupin, the European Commission, as of 2006, has required that food labels indicate the presence of “lupin and products thereof” in food. (Source: Wikipedia)

“I still had a lot of uphill hiking ahead of me to make it all the way up there.” 

“This tree seems to have sprouted at a 45º angle and then corrected itself or maybe it just evolved a pair of hips…lol!”

Western Wallflower – (Erysimum capitatum)

Erysimum capitatum is a species of wallflower known commonly as the sand dune wallflower, western wallflower, or prairie rocket. This species can be found in regions across North America, from the Great Lakes to the West Coast of the United States and Alaska. Some varieties have an extremely narrow distribution, especially those endemic to California. Erysimum capitatum is a mustard-like plant with thin, erect stems growing from a basal rosette and topped with dense bunches of variably colored flowers. Flowers are most typically bright golden, yellow, tangerine-colored, but plants in some populations may have red, white or purple flowers. Each flower has four flat petals. Seed pods are nearly parallel to the stem.

Little information on this wallflower species relationship with pollinators exists. Andrew Moldenke studied a population of Erysimum capitatum var. perenne in Subalpine Talus Fell Scree of the Timberland Hall Area 9,500 – 11,500 ft (2,900 – 3,500 m) elevation. He observed 13 species of flower visitors, although over 80% of the visits to the flowers were performed by two ant species, Formica lasioides and one from the Formica fusca group.Erysimum capitatum is cultivated as an ornamental plant. It is an attractive perennial, can be variable in appearance, and is used in butterfly gardening. (Source: Wikipedia)

“The first mile of this trail is a bit taxing if you’re out of shape, so pacing yourself is key.”

Hillside Gooseberry – (Ribes californicum)

Ribes californicum, with the common name hillside gooseberry, is a North American species of currant. It is endemic to California, where it can be found throughout many of the California Coast, Transverse, and Peninsular Ranges in local habitat types such as chaparral and woodlands. Ribes californicum is a mostly erect shrub growing to a maximum height around 1.4 metres (4.6 ft). Nodes along the stem each bear three spines up to 1.5 centimetres (0.59 in) in length. The hairy to hairless leaves are 1–3 centimetres (0.39–1.18 in) long and divided into 3–5 centimetres (1.2–2.0 in) oblong, toothed lobes.

The inflorescence is a solitary flower or raceme of up to three flowers which hang pendent from the branches. The flower has five sepals in shades of deep red or green with a red tinge, which are reflexed upward. At the center is a tubular corolla of white or pinkish petals around five stamens and two longer styles. The fruit is an edible red berry about a centimeter wide which is covered in stiff spines. (Source: Wikipedia)

“The berries looked like spiny hand grenades, only much tastier from what I hear.”

“After getting some shots of the Hillside Gooseberries, I set off to continue my search for the Snow Plant.”

“The entire forest floor was a literal pinecone field, these things were everywhere.”

“This neatly composed pine cone cluster really caught my photographic attention.”

“You just can’t beat the views along the Pacific Crest Trail, I mean just look at this!”

The Pacific Crest Trail

This section of the Pacific Crest Trail is host to quite a bit of foot traffic from April to May. The PCT is one of the the longest trail systems in the United States covering 2,650 miles (4,265 km) and reaches an elevation of 13,153 ft (4,009 m) at Forester Pass. The trail starts at Campo, CA on the Mexican Border and traverses through California, Oregon, and finally Washington state where it comes to a stop at Monument 78 on the Canadian Border. People take on sections of the trail at a time over the course of years, but those known as “Thru-Hikers” are the kind of folks who take on the whole trail system in one really long 6 month hike. I crossed paths with a variety of Thru-Hikers who were already rather worn-looking by this point in the trail, but there is well over 2,000 miles of PCT left to go, so nothing but the best of luck to them!

“Always a good thing to see when you run across confusing trail junctions.”

“I knew I was getting close, but not certain by how much…”

“A brief video of the 1.5 mile hike to find the Snow Plant.”

“Eureka!, I’ve Found It!”

After hiking over 1.5 miles from the trailhead and nearly 800 ft of elevation gain, I spotted something bright and red further up the trail. I knew I had found my plant, but I was concerned that some nitwit would have mangled it or taken it out of the ground since I was last here. It was a holiday weekend and that meant more foot traffic from the L.A. area which increased the odds of someone doing something like that. I suppose luck was on my side, because the plant was still intact with all it’s beautiful, vibrant glory! I put down my pack and started firing off round after round of photos with all my lenses. The “in-camera” preview showed some rather exciting results.

Snow Plant – (Sarcodes sanguinea)

Sarcodes is a monotypic genus of a north-west American, springtime, flowering plant in the heath family (Ericaceae), containing the single species Sarcodes sanguinea, commonly called the snow plant or snow flower. It is a parasitic plant that derives sustenance and nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi that attach to roots of trees. Lacking chlorophyll, it is unable to photosynthesize. Ectomycorrhizal (EM) symbioses involve a mutualism between a plant root and a fungus; the plant provides fixed carbon to the fungus and in return, the fungus provides mineral nutrients, water and protection from pathogens to the plant. The snow plant takes advantage of this mutualism by tapping into the network and stealing sugars from the photosynthetic partner by way of the fungus. This form of parasitism is known as mycoheterotrophy.

The plant’s above-ground tissue is its inflorescence, a raceme of bright scarlet red flowers wrapped in many strap-like, pointed bracts with fringed edges, themselves bright red to orange in color. Sarcodes sanguinea is native to montane areas of the California Floristic Province, from the Oregon Cascade Range (as far north as the Umpqua River), through the mountains of California (though it is absent from the California Coast Ranges between the Klamath Mountains and the Transverse Ranges), and into the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir range of northern Baja California. Its species epithet sanguinea refers to the striking red flower that emerges from the sometimes still snow-covered ground in early spring or summer; this may be as late as July in high elevations, such as those of the High Sierra Nevada and Cascades. (Source: Wikipedia)

“The fine, white sprinkles on this plant resembled a sugar coated confection.”

After spending a solid 30 minutes photographing this Winter Plant to death, I decided to pack up all my gear and start making my way back to the parking lot. The hike out would be much easier than the hike in because it was all downhill. The entire time I navigated through this section of the woods, I could hear what sounded like the quick chirps of a bird, but they were the calls of a chipmunk. A warning system of sorts to alert others in their community that a large potential predator was passing through (me). Although I was rather hungry by this point, they can rest assured that chipmunk was not on the menu…lol.

“It was a nice walk back, the weather was perfectly cool and the continuous scent of the pine soothed the senses.”

“The relentless clouds were still doing their thing, so into the fog I went.”

“The scene at the end of the day was one of mysterious beauty.”

I was glad that I returned to this location so soon. I had a strong feeling that the Winter Plant would not have looked so good had I waited another week or so. Even though that plant was supposed to be my only objective for this venture, I managed to capture a lot more of the surrounding beauty. I went home with 357 photos of shear awesome. The resulting images that wound up on this travel blog entry make me happy to share the spoils of my travels once again.

Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”



©Indigoverse Photography. All Rights Reserved.

2 Responses

  1. Linda
    | Reply

    Indigo, your post reminded me that I must be more respectful of our Tahoe garden. We are fortunate to have all these species right in our own backyard (and no tourists!) Thx. Linda

    • Indigo Hernandez
      | Reply

      That’s excellent Linda! What an amazing feast for the eyes to have at such convenience. I need to return to the Tahoe area again soon during the height of Spring to see what other beautiful blooms I can find.👌🏼😉

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