The Secret Life of Parasitic Plants

“Parasite” has a bad connotation. There is something unsettling and a little mysterious about an organism that taps into another to survive. But for me parasitic plants mean beauty and balance … and still a bit of mystery.

A little background about parasitic plants: they can be classified as holoparasites or hemiparasites. Holoparasites don’t produce any chlorophyll and rely on their host plants 100% to get the nutrients they need to survive. It is easy to mistake holoparasites, like the Indian Pipe below, for mushrooms because they are often white or pale-colored. Since they don’t need direct sunlight to survive, holoparasites keep most of the plant structure below ground, only sending flowering stalks aboveground to be pollinated and to disperse seeds. So if you see parasitic plant, it’s a special treat!

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Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora, is often mistaken for a mushroom because it lacks chlorophyll.

On the contrary, hemiparasites are still completely green and only derive some of their nutrition from their host plant. Indian paintbrush and mistletoes are hemiparasites you might recognize. Parasitic plants tap into their host plant using a special structure called a haustorium. Check out this link to learn more about parasitic plants.

Why do parasitic plants make me think of balance and beauty? If you’ve ever grown native plants in your garden, you probably noticed that often what seem to be well-behaved plants in your favorite meadow become tall, aggressive, spreading giants! Without the rich, complex connections of an intact natural community, these plants grow like crazy. When I see parasitic plants, it is a sign of the intricate web of connections, above and beneath the soil, among the plants, fungi, insects, birds, mammals, herps, bacteria, and other organisms.

Check out the pictures of more parasitic plants you might see in our Oakland Township parks. Enjoy!

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Cancer root, Orobanche uniflora, growing amid a bed of green violet and aster leaves.
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Common Dodder, Cuscuta gronovii, growing on joe-pye and Canada goldenrod. Dodder taps in to the stem of its host plant, not the root.
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Oaks are the only known host plant for Squaw-Root, Conopholis americana.
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About Ben VanderWeide

I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.

2 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Parasitic Plants

  1. I just saw common dodder in a field and commented to my friend that it was very strange stuff! Now I know what it is but it still looks strange!

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