After the demise of spring and summer wildflowers, which fold into the earth as the first frost appears, one wildflower persists in standing upright into fall and winter, some remaining erect for several years — pinedrops, Pterospora andromedea. In winter, the stalk-like plant resembles those musical instruments from kindergarten — sticks with bells — that we loved to shake with vigor. On a closer look, each ‘bell’ looks like a papery, brick-red pumpkin lantern, and an even more scrupulous examination reveals a five-pronged starfish or sand dollar pattern on each ‘pumpkin.’ Distinguishing characteristics are pinedrops’ height, one to four feet, which makes these plant easy to spot in coniferous forests, and the unusual curl of the leaves at the bottom of the hairy, sticky stems. Like the snow plant, the first flower of spring (and a relative of pinedrops), pinedrops lack the chlorophyll required to synthesize sugars in sunlight. According to ‘John Muir Laws’ Sierra Nevada Field Guide,’ pinedrops are ‘freeloaders … receiving the necessary sugars from the photosynthetic work of neighboring plants through a fungus bridge.’ When they flower in early to midsummer, pinedrops’ flowers are yellow to red and are often described as ‘upside-down urns.’ The Botanical Society of America’s website shows an enlarged image of the seeds, each one consisting of a tiny embryo attached to a transparent, triangular wing (resembling a microscopic sandwich bag), five times as large as the seed. The large wing permits the seed to sail long distances on a windy day, thus the wide geographical distribution. The name Pterospora means ‘wing-seed’ in Greek.
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