Snow-melting cabbage and other surprises

5 redwood forest plants with amazing adaptations

Many yellow flowers bloom among tall grass
The malodorous western skunk cabbage melts snow and ice to protect its showy blooms from freezing. The flower blooms in wet areas of the coast redwood forest. Photo by Kristof Lauwers, Adobe Stock

Behind five alluring coast redwood forest plants are stories of endurance, adaptation, and even superpowers. See if you can spot these remarkable species this spring.

Western skunk cabbage

Blooming as early as February along streams and wet areas, western skunk cabbage boasts a rare ability among plants: These showy yellow flowers generate heat that not only melts snow and ice but also serves as a dual protector. The warmth shields delicate flowers from freezing, while releasing a foul odor into the air. The plant’s “skunk” moniker stems from the odor, which lures fly and beetle pollinators emerging from winter hibernation. This strategic perfume ensures pollination and provides a layer of protection because the odor deters herbivores. Adding to its defenses, all parts of the plant harbor toxic, needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals, which cause a sensation akin to chewing on glass shards if ingested raw.

Redwood sorrel

A closeup of a white flower and heart-shaped leaves
When the shade-loving redwood sorrel is exposed to direct sunlight, its leaves fold downward within minutes. Photo by Donalda La Fey, Adobe Stock

Also blooming as early as February, and often covering the forest floor, the clover-like redwood sorrel thrives in shade. When exposed to direct sunlight, this plant reveals its protective mechanism. In a remarkable display of adaptation, the leaves fold downward within minutes—a process known as nyctinasty.

Calypso orchid

A magenta flower with a round leaf and a dark stalk
The sublime Calypso orchid, also known as the fairyslipper orchid, grows in the forest and near streams. Look closely at the forest floor; it can be as short as 3 inches tall. This plant tricks bumblebees into pollinating it. Photo by Max Forster, @maxforsterphotography

Venturing further into the understory, the tiny purple calypso orchid is a master of deception to attract bumblebee pollinators. Its lip adorned with small, yellow, hair-like protrusions mimics pollen-covered anthers, and a deceptive pouch conceals two false nectar spurs. Luring the unsuspecting bumblebee, this orchid offers no genuine rewards, but has one singular true anther that releases pollinia, a mass of pollen grains that attach to the pollinator as a single unit—a brilliant evolutionary tactic for mass genetic material dissemination.

Pacific bleeding heart

Pink, heart-shaped flowers hang from stems.
Pacific bleeding hearts attract ants with fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds. Ants consume the elaiosome structures, leaving the seed to germinate and fostering a symbiotic relationship crucial for the plant’s dispersal. Photo by Arevik, Adobe Stock

The Pacific bleeding heart, which starts blooming in March, depends on ants to disperse its seeds, a process called myrmecochory. The plant attracts ants with fatty elaiosomes. These fleshy structures are attached to the seeds, enticing the insects to carry the seeds back to their nest. There, the ants consume the elaiosome, leaving the seed to germinate and fostering a symbiotic relationship crucial for the plant’s dispersal.

Maidenhair fern

A closeup of a green fern
The maidenhair fern lies dormant during dry spells, appearing dead, only to revive with vitality upon the return of moisture. Photo by Anthony Ambrose

In the moisture-laden air of the redwood forest, maidenhair ferns reveal a notable adaptation to arid conditions. Entering dormancy during dry spells, these ferns appear lifeless, only to revive with vitality upon the return of moisture.

About the author

Michayla Conrad, a writer and marketing professional, crafts compelling narratives that form lasting connections to places, revealing the intrinsic qualities of diverse subjects through a blend of strategy, branding, and writing.

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