Plant profile: the pinedrop

Jul 23, 2013
Kelly Madden explains her newly found fascination with the pinedrops of Skyline Forest.


By the time I got home from my last hike at Skyline Forest, the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees.  My socks were coated with dirt from the long hike, but my face wore a smile a testament to the wonderful hike I had with a lovely trio of women from Bull Springs to Snag Springs and back.

We followed the ephemeral Bull Springs Creek, hiking along in the July heat. The wildflowers were beautiful up there. We saw yellow monkey flower, washington lily, paint brush, columbine, lowly penstemon, lupine, scarlet gilia, and more. Yet the most intriguing wildflowers of the day were the odd, reddish-yellowish alien asparagus, called pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea).

Pinedrops are fleshy, unbranched, rust-colored plants that grow above ground on tall stalks that vary from 30 to 100 centimeters in height. Their seedpods look like tiny pumpkins or lanterns. They are usually found in small clusters between June and August in mixed conifer forests.

The pinedrop is a perennial wildflower, but seems unlike any flower I have ever seen. It has no chlorophyll. It doesn’t photosynthesize, and it isn’t green. It is a mycotrophic plant, which means it has a symbiotic relationship with a fungus associated with pine trees. It’s a second-tier root parasite, feeding on fungi that steels nutrients from conifer roots. Pinedrops are common in humus-rich soil under the needles of ponderosas and other pines. They are more frequently found on the east side of the Cascades than the wetter west.

In some states these woodland oddities are threatened and endangered. Declining forest habitat and the short lifespan of the pinedrop seed have led to small population sizes. In addition, they are reluctant to germinate and they don’t transplant well. In Skyline Forest, however, they thrive.

Frankly, I don’t think pinedrops are pretty, just incredibly interesting.  Leftover tall brown stalks from previous years line the trail. New plants punch up through thick, heavy duff and soil, all pale, sticky, scaly and fascinating.

If you want to catch a look at these weird wildflowers, check out the Land Trust's hikes at Skyline Forest. I hope you won’t mind if I don’t go with you, I am still cooling off from my own hike!

Sources

Trull, Sue. "Woodland pinedrops." Celebrating Wildflowers, US Forest Service.

"Pterospora andromedea." USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.