If you find yourself walking through the woods in late summer/early autumn, and you come across what looks like a slender, branched twig stuck in the ground, take a closer look. It could be a stick, or it just might be a really nifty plant: beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana).
Now, I know what you are thinking. That can’t possibly be a plant, or, if it is, it is dead. The lack of “verdure” (or, as described in Gray’s New Lessons and Manual of Botany (1868), “herbs destitute of green foliage”) is an immediate indication that you are looking at a very special plant, a plant that is wholly dependent on others for food.
Neltje Blanchan wrote in her 1917 book Wild Flowers Worth Knowing likened beechdrops to thieves:
Nearly related to the broom-rape is this less attractive pirate, a taller, brownish-purple plant, with a disagreeable odor, whose erect, branching stem without leaves is still furnished with brownish scales, the remains of what were once green leaves in virtuous ancestors, no doubt. But perhaps even these relics of honesty may one day disappear. Nature brands every sinner somehow; and the loss of green from a plant’s leaves may be taken as a certain indication that theft of another’s food stamps it with this outward and visible sign of guilt.
It’s beautiful writing, rather poetic, but sadly casts human traits onto nonhuman lives, in this case a poor hapless plant whose only fault is that it cannot make its own food.
Perhaps we should take another look at beechdrops. Neither thieves nor helpless, maybe we should consider them as opportunistic, perhaps even an advanced lifeform. Why waste energy making your own food when you can eat the food produced by others? HM…it sounds thoroughly American to me!
Over the eons it this plant has cast aside the need to have leaves (note the previously mentioned scales). Leaves exist to provide additional photosynthesizing surfaces. If one does not photosynthesize, one has no need for leaves.
Still, a plant has got to eat, and if it isn’t making its own food by mixing up sunlight with water and CO2, then it must find another food source. Beechdrops have a special structure on their roots called a haustorium. This structure grows out of the stem, root or hyphae of some parasitic plants, and on beechdrops it grows from the roots. The haustorium engulfs the root of the target plant (beechdrops are obligate parasites of beech trees) and taps the root for its life-giving sap.
Neltje mentioned beechdrops’ disagreeable odor. The plant is highly astringent, filled with compounds that make it beneficial medicinally, but not necessarily something one would want to add to a nosegay. Native Americans and settlers alike knew the benefits of beechdrops, which could help cure diarrhea and dysentery, heal wounds (antiseptic), work as a sedative, and even sooth aching eyes. At one point in time beechdrops were used as a folk medicine for cancer, although modern testing found it had no such virtue.
I came across a couple rather robust stands of beechdrops recently. What struck me as odd was that there wasn’t a beech tree to be seen! Because these plants are entirely dependent on beeches for survival, they shouldn’t have grown where I saw them. Admittedly, I was in a hurry, so I only did a quick scan of the forest; it is possible I overlooked the host plants. After all, it was a pocket of hardwoods, mostly sugar maples. Beech trees traditionally grow with birches and maples, so they should have been there. I’ll have to return and conduct a more thorough inventory.
If you find some beechdrops, you will want to have a seat and really look at them. They are quite beautiful, with small, striped, tubular flowers. Purple, red and brown are the colors they sport, and they wear them well.
You might think, as you gaze upon the plant, that the flowers on the lower end of the stem are just buds, waiting to open. In fact, they are fully fledged flowers in their own right, but they are cleistogamous. This means that they never open – there is no need for them to open because they are self-fertilized. The flowers closer to the top of the plant, the ones that form those delicate tubes, are chasmogamous and therefore require fertilization.
Why a plant would have both kinds of flowers? Some careful thought soon brings enlightenment. This is a plant that grows close to the ground (no more than a foot and a half tall, often less) in the woods. There is little wind near the ground (so much for wind-pollination), and there isn’t a whole lot of insect activity at this time of year in the woods. If a plant isn’t smelly and able to attract flies, it may not get a whole lot of action. So, some plants, like beechdrops, hedge their bets by producing a few flowers that require pollination, but also producing flowers that are completely self-contained, just in case. Based on the literature I’ve read, they’ve made the wise bet – it seems that the flowers that actually do get pollinated by visiting insects don’t produce fertile seeds, only the cleistogamous flowers are able to reproduce.
So, let’s not shun the parasitic plants. They have an otherworldly beauty about them and have merely tapped into a surplus foodsource not of their own making. It’s an entirely modern way of living, and since we as humans have embraced this lifestyle, I think it’s only right that we give a friendly nod to those plants that have done so as well, for they are, perhaps, kindred spirits.