Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fringed Pinesap

Hi all,

A rare and ghostly flower haunts the deep woods, called Fringed Pinesap.

On the gentle uplands of Moody Ridge, some four thousand feet above sea level, there once grew an open forest of mighty pines and cedars. Then, around 1870, came Progress: those gigantic trees, centuries old, were laid low. A dense forest of young pines rose in its place, almost impenetrable, as is remarked in the field notes of Berkeley zoologist Joseph Grinnell (see, who visited in 1912, collecting specimens for days on end. He stayed at the Pine Mound Inn, one of several hotels in and near Dutch Flat at that time.

Fires swept across Moody Ridge and thinned that dense forest again and again. More logging took place, notably, around 1960 and 1977-78. This last cut was the unkindest, in that every conifer over fifteen inches in diameter was taken, and then, adding insult to injury, the bulldozer-churned forest land was illegally subdivided.

Thirty years later, the signs of logging have softened, but the skid trails of the 1977-78 timber harvest are still plainly visible, as the bulldozers spun their treads deeply into the rich forest soil, casting it to the side, and exposing the clayey subsoil.

Only recently did I finally realize, after a few decades of walking about, that signs of the earliest phase of logging, dating to around 1875, remain visible, in the form of narrow-gauge railroad grades, very carefully located to allow for the easiest yarding of the huge first-growth sawlogs, which would be rolled directly onto the flatcars, and hauled away to the Canyon Creek Mill.

I have cleared debris and small trees from one of these old logging-railroad grades, which winds in and out of a small valley on a line so level one would imagine it an old mining ditch, and it makes for a nice walk. I call it the Railroad Trail. Yesterday, walking along the Railroad Trail amid Incense Cedar and White Fir, Ponderosa Pine and Sugar Pine, I saw what seemed to be the white ghosts of small pine cones thrusting up through the pine needles which deeply cover the forest floor. They were quite intricate, and clearly, without any chlorophyll, being one of those saprophytic plants often placed in the Heath Family, like Pine Drops and Snow Plant. I took some photographs, but was not pleased with my efforts, when I got home to my computer, so today I returned.

In the meantime, I succeeded in identifying these ghostly flowers as Fringed Pinesap, Pleuricospora fimbriolata. It derives all its energy and nutrients from fungal mycelia in coniferous leaf litter. There are quite a few nice photographs of Fringed Pinesap on the internet.

As I neared the Railroad Trail, a loud and sudden flapping of very large wings, very near by, shocked me, and I hastened forward into an opening, expecting to see a Golden Eagle lifting away.

Instead I saw a large dark bird move awkwardly, from one branch to another, in an Incense Cedar. A turkey? I sidled closer, camera raised, hoping for a shot. Many an intervening branch left my subject indistinct. I lost patience and strode closer.

Immediately that first large bird took wing, and a second followed, in a great commotion of flapping. Two turkey vultures. Just as I recognized what they were, a sour smell spoke of Death. I walked towards the tree in which the vultures had roosted, and found a dead Gray Fox stretched long on the pine needles, long and oddly narrow, since most of it had been eaten, and for a radius of twenty feet around the carcass, vulture feathers littered the ground. A cloud of flies hovered above.

Returning to the trail, I was soon in the gentle uplands of the surface of the andesitic mudflow plateau which was once universal, but the larger part of the plateau is gone, carried away bit by bit during in the canyons of our modern rivers, canyons only a few million years old. It is very likely that the canyons of the North Fork American, the Bear, Steephollow, and the South Yuba, are all alike only four million years old.

I revisited the several locations where my Fringed Pinesap pushed up from the forest floor, in clusters of five to ten individual plants, and took a number of photos. These plants never grow very tall, a few inches at best. In years past I have often mistaken them for young Pine Drops, somehow, due to their youth no doubt, not colored red. It is gratifying to recognize at last they are a distinct species.

Above: Pine Drops

Fringed Pinesap and Pine Drops alike are classic residents of the deep pine woods, along with a number of native orchids, such as Rattlesnake Orchid, and other plants either in the Heath Family or closely allied to it, such as Little Prince's Pine, and Wintergreen.

I left the Railroad Trail and struck out through the densely overgrown forest, gathering spider webs in great swaths across face and chest as I pushed through thickets of young cedars and firs, but only found one new cluster of Fringed Pinesap.

A dead fox, ghostly flowers which mimic pine cones, uneasy vultures; it was, all in all, a nice walk. I will post a picture or two on my blog (


Russell Towle

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