Every now and then when I’m hiking in the mountains I run across a really cool plant. Over Memorial Day weekend I was out with a group of friends on the trail to Lookout Mountain and Monogram Lake, off the Cascade River Road east of Marblemount in the North Cascades. We came across more candystick (aka sugarstick), Allotropa virgata, than I’ve seen in one place in the 25 years I’ve been hiking in the northwest.
Candystick is a striking plant, growing up to about 15 inches tall. It gets the name because of its resemblance to a piece of peppermint stick candy, with red stripes twisting up the pure white stalk. But where are the leaves? Candystick’s leaves are tiny scale-like things that are easy to miss because they’re as white as the rest of the plant. It’s a member of a group of plants called mycoheterotrophs.
Mycoheterotrophs get their nutrients (organic carbon) by tapping into a fungus that is also attached to the roots of a host plant. The relationship is usually not harmful to either the host plant or the fungus, although the mycoheterotroph is apparently not providing anything in return. Before scientists understood this somewhat complicated relationship, these plants were considered saprophytes, organisms that live on dead or decaying organic matter. That’s the word I learned many decades ago and I’m only now coming to appreciate the role of fungi in the life of these amazing plants.
When candystick first emerges from the soil, often in a carpet of moss, the young stems resemble white asparagus. As they grow and elongate the flowers expand, the petals looking like little white “wings” around the deep red stamens. It may not be immediately obvious, but candystick is in the same plant family as heather and rhododendron, the Ericaceae.
Candystick is found intermittently throughout the western states from British Columbia down to California and east to Montana. It isn’t rare in most of its range, but you’re not likely to bump into it often. I’ve come across it exactly three times since I first encountered it on the side of Mt. Townsend in the Olympics in 2004. I saw it again at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in 2015, and then on my recent hike to Monogram Lake in late May.
You’re most likely to find Allotropa virgata in somewhat dry conifer forests with substantial decaying wood that holds moisture and nutrients in the soil. That’s probably because of the needs of the fungus. Candystick has been reported in association with several conifer species, but I’ve seen it primarily with western hemlock and Douglas-fir.
Needless to say, candystick is NOT a plant I’ll ever try to grow in my garden. Even if I collected viable seeds, the chances of getting it established with the right host and the right fungus are slim.
Next time you’re out hiking, keep your eyes open for this gem of the forest. See a few more photos of candystick on my Pacific Northwest Wildflowers website.