A snow plant near Yosemite NP, CA.
On a recent trip to Yosemite, I was was so curious about a red thing that I saw sticking out of the pine-needle covered ground as we drove through the forest to our camping spot. Actually, at first I thought it was a piece of garbage or something that was lying on the ground. But then I saw another red thing a few minutes later, and this time I was prepared to look at it more closely as I drove past.
It was so strange. I thought I just saw a red asparagus pushing its way out of the ground! Then I thought, maybe it was a mushroom!? But it didn't look like one because it was more stalky. Of course, my curiosity was building and soon I was actively looking out the window along the ground to see if I could spot another one.
Another picture of a snow plant near Yosemite NP, CA.
When I finally saw another one, I screamed to pull over on the side of the road so I could get a closer look at what it was! To my surprise, it actually was a red asparagus looking thing, and it was just popping out from the ground, in a small bunch, but pretty isolated. I couldn't resist, I had to poke it to see what it felt like and it was pretty firm, also like asparagus. WTF was it? We took some pictures, and yesterday I got a chance to 'google' it. What I typed into the search bar was "strange red sprout spring near Yosemite" and I actually got some search results that showed a picture of the same red thing I saw. What I learned is that the strange red asparagus thing is called a Snow Plant, named because it pops out of the pine-needle and snow covered ground in the spring, and it only grows in a couple western states in the mountains. The place it is most found is in the Sierra Nevadas in California, and that's exactly where I kept seeing it (while I was visiting Yosemite with my mom and dad).
It is a fungus flower. It doesn't need photosynthesis to live because it takes its nutrients from a network of fungus that attaches to the roots of pine trees. In exchange for nutrients, the fungus fixes nitrogen into the soil for the tree. The ones I saw were just sprouting, about 3-6 inches high, but they can grow about a foot high and bell-shaped red 'flowers' bloom all along the asparagus stalk. Once it gets big, it doesn't look like an asparagus anymore. The US Forest Service has a nice description of the snow plant on their website here.