Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Parasitic Plant

A few weeks ago I was on a short hike in western Massachusetts, hiking up to Rattlesnake Knob in the Holyoke Range. This range is across the road from our homestead, so we regularly explored these areas growing up. We were climbing the short steep section up to the Knob, and noticed a funny looking plant at the base of a large oak, just to the side of the trail.

I don't recall ever seeing this plant before, but maybe I had years ago. My friend Scott identified it today after I sent him the picture. It is American cancer-root (Conopholis americana). This is a parasitic plant, and like Indian pipe, it has no chlorophyll and does not photosynthesize. Thus the parasitic nature, gathering its nutrients from the nearby trees. The suckers of the parasitic roots cause large rounded knobs to form on the roots of the host tree, mostly oaks in the red oak group. There were many oaks on this dry, but rich, wooded hillside.

The cancer-root, also known as squawroot and bear corn, looks like a pine cone or corn cob. Much of the year it is out of sight below ground. In May and June it sends forth its flower spikes, the only plant part that is visible above ground. The plant has no leaves, only tiny scales.

The "bear corn" name may relate to the resemblance to a corn cob, or that bears feed on them, or that they help (according to one report) bears with constipation after a long winter's nap (who knew).

This cancer-root must have just popped up out of the rich duff layer not long before we happened by. It was just by chance that we stumbled along at the right time. Soon it will resume its subterranean life until next spring.

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