Deb Babcock: Routt County woodland oddity

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— Nearly every year hiking in the forests around Steamboat Springs, my attention is captured by a plant that is unusual for its strange coloring and composition. It is shaped like a stalk of asparagus but looks like a weird form of mushroom. I never touched one, but it looks like it would feel soft and squishy like an over-cooked spear of asparagus, and it’s about the color of an earthworm, sort of reddish brown, and about a foot tall. According to the literature on this plant, it is sticky and hairy to the touch and can grow as tall as 3 feet.

The common name for this plant is Woodland Pinedrops, and it only grows in coniferous forests with lots of decaying plant materials on the ground, particularly dropped needles and pine cone detritus. I generally see them on hiking around Pearl Lake near Hahn’s Peak.

What is particularly unusual about this plant is that it lacks chlorophyll. A member of the Indian-pipe family (Monotropaceae), this plant is a saprophyte or root parasite. It obtains its nutrients from the dead and decaying plant material under pine trees rather than using sunlight to manufacture its food. They live in a parasitic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi — a relationship that is not well understood.

Woodland Pinedrops don’t appear above ground every year — in fact, they live most of their lives as a mass of fleshy, brittle roots. The seeds are short-lived and difficult to germinate, making this a rarely seen plant.

The top of each stalk is covered with yellow urn-shaped flowers with a little wing-like thread that faces the ground. This flower is yellow in the summertime and turns a reddish brown as it matures. The stalk actually is edible raw or cooked like you might a mushroom. But because of its rarity, it should be left in place to be enjoyed by all hikers observant enough to spot it among the duff under pine trees. You usually only see a few stalks concentrated in a small area.

This plant generally lasts through the winter, turning to a woody stem once the air becomes crisp in late fall.

It is native to North America and found from southern Canada to the mountains of Mexico, mostly in the western United States and rarely in some mid-western and eastern states. In Michigan, the plant is listed as threatened, and in New York, Wisconsin and Vermont it is listed as endangered. Because of the devastation of our pine forests in Northwest Colorado, this unusual plant may become even rarer in our state.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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