I’m on annual leave this week, enjoying a family reunion in Sun River, Oregon. I’ve been coming here off and on for decades, and one of the first things I do is hunt down my favorite eastern Oregon plant. Forests in this part of Oregon are dominated by Ponderosa and other pine species, and beneath these trees you might find tall brown flower spikes which many people assume are dead. Actually, they are alive and kicking and fascinating. Meet Pterospora andromedea, otherwise known as pinedrops.
If you look at the flowers closely, their shape might remind you of some other flowers – perhaps blueberries or salal or andromeda. They’re all members of the Ericaceae, and pinedrops are the only member of the Pterospera.
What’s fascinating about this plant is that it spends most of its life underground as a parasite, siphoning food from mycorrhizal fungi (which are connected to nearby roots of pines and other photosynthetic plants). In the summer, it sends up huge reddish-brown flower spikes, with sticky, bell-shaped flowers.
Pinedrops are threatened or endangered in some midwestern and eastern states, and should never be dug from the wild. It doesn’t transplant well, anyway, so take pictures instead – they’ll last longer!