Did you know last week’s puzzler? Were you one of the people who sent in a guess? This was a challenging one as it doesn’t really look like what it is.
The mysterious growths on the forest floor –which may at first look like some kind of fungus–are actually an unusual plant that can be found throughout the eastern US and Canada under oak trees–especially red oaks. Like many plants, this one has it’s fair share of common names including American cancer root, squawroot, bear cone, and bear corn. Its scientific name is Conopholis americana, because it resembles a pine cone poking out of the ground–conos meaning ‘cone’ and pholos meaning ‘scale.’ This plant lacks chlorophyll so unlike other plants, cannot manufacture its own food. It solves this problem by stealing nutrients from its host plant–the oak tree. Thus, Conopholis americana is a parasitic plant
This plant has an interesting lifecycle: Seedlings grow underground for 4 years, sending out roots that will latch on to the root of an oak tree. They form large swollen knobs, which is perhaps where the common name of cancer root came to be. After four years the plant sends up a whitish stalk that is at first a pale cream color but as spring turns into summer, it becomes brown and may last all winter. It can be 3-7 inches tall. When the scales of the plant pull back, you can see small white flowers that eventually become seeds and drop off to begin the lifecycle again. It is pollinated by flies and bumblebees.
Many animals eat this plant, including deer and bear–hence the reason for another of its common names–bear corn or bear cone. Legend has it that when the bears are emerging from their long hibernations, this plant, which is just emerging from the leaf litter, is a favorite.
This plant reminds me of Indian Pipe–another plant that lacks chlorophyll You can read more about that HERE.
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