Lake Tahoe gears up for epic wildflower season | TheUnion.com
Claire Cudahy
Special to The Union

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Lake Tahoe gears up for epic wildflower season

A cluster of snow plants at the Twin Peaks recreation area near South Lake Tahoe.3.

In the depths of the woods in the Sierra Nevada where patches of snow are still holding on, the bright-red snow plant has pushed its way to the surface.

It's a harbinger of spring — and the beginning of what wildflower enthusiasts are expecting to be an impressive wildflower season.

"I'm very excited," Laird Blackwell said enthusiastically. Blackwell taught psychology, literature, philosophy and mythology at Sierra Nevada College for 31 years, and has been leading field courses on wildflowers for just as long. He has published eight guides, including his two most recent — month-by-month guides focusing on flowers in the Tahoe Basin and California.

Starting in April in the lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada, the perennial snow plants popping up are a welcome — and intriguing — sight.

Blackwell estimates that peak season for wildflowers at low- to mid-elevations will be roughly halfway through July. Peak bloom for higher elevations will be closer to the end of July and into August.

"The snow plant is most interesting because of course it has no green leaves so it does not produce its own food," explained Blackwell. "It's saprophytic, which means it feeds off of decaying matter. It has bacteria in its roots that are feeding off of neighboring plant's decaying matter and converting it into a form the plant can use."

The snow plant has adapted to life in the shady areas of forests sitting at elevations of roughly 4,000 to 9,000 feet in some areas of California, Nevada and Oregon. Its scientific name, Sarcodes sanguinea, translates roughly to "blood-red fleshy thing" — a fitting description for the plant that seems a little otherworldly, growing in the shade with snow still lingering.

"They are really powerful. They have such a strong growing tip they can come right through asphalt," said Blackwell.

Sometimes referred to as the psychedelic asparagus — for its appearance and edibleness, not any hallucinogenic effects — the snow plant was once eaten by Native Americans. Now the rare plant is protected by law and can result in a fine of $250 if picked or disturbed.

The snow plant is not the only flower that can survive Tahoe's cool spring days.

Other early bloomers are Brown's Peony, often overlooked because the flowers are so heavy they often touch the ground; Manzanita, an evergreen shrub with brown fruits that resemble tiny apples; the Alpine Shooting Star, with its four lavender or magenta petals; and the familiar Buttercup.

And if the "super bloom" in long-parched Southern California is any indication of what's coming up north as we transition into summer, the Sierra Nevada should be flush with wildflowers this season — though peak bloom is likely to be delayed a couple of weeks due to the amount of snow that still needs to melt.

Blackwell estimates that peak season for wildflowers at low- to mid-elevations will be roughly halfway through July. During that time, he will be hosting a five-day guided class on wildflowers in various locations throughout the Tahoe Basin from July 10-14.

Peak bloom for higher elevations will be closer to the end of July and into August.

"This year should be incredible. I don't know exactly what flowers will be incredible, but the blooming should be amazing," said Blackwell.

To learn more about Blackwell's guided wildflower tour or his books, visit http://www.facebook.com/LairdsWildflowers.

Claire Cudahy is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of The Union based in South Lake Tahoe. Contact her at ccudahy@tahoedailytribune.com.