Wed. Nov 29th, 2023

Today’s post comes from Maddie Bray, naturalist at Awenda Provincial Park.

As park naturalists, we get asked all kinds of questions about the various organisms that live within the park. Campers will describe the song of a bird they didn’t quite see or the color of an insect that was simply too fast to photograph.

One of these questions in particular always seems to come up in summer: what are those pale yellow tones? things sticking out of the ground?

Is it a fungus? Rotten corn cobs? Yellow pineapples?

Believe it or not, this is actually a wildflower! It belongs to a parasitic plant known as Conopholis Americana.

Yellowish-brown buds surrounded by dirt and dead leaves.These brownish-yellow “fingers” are easy to miss in late spring when they emerge from beneath a mat of oak and maple leaves.

Depending on who you ask, there are different common names for this plant, including American Cancer-Root and Bear Corn, but in Awenda Provincial Park we tend to just call it Conopholis.

The key characteristic of these plants is the complete and utter lack of green that we see in most other plants.

Quite a “para-vision!”

Unlike its distant relatives, Conopholis (and other closely related plants) does not obtain its nutrients from the sun, but from the plants around it, drawing water-soluble nutrients from the roots of its host. It is an obligate parasite that cannot grow without its host plant nearby.

Yellow shoots growing from dead oak leaves.The creamy yellow flower spikes contrast well with the drooping leaves of their oak hosts.

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Conopholis is specialized in parasitizing oak trees, most commonly a red oak (red oak). Seedlings cannot develop without the presence of young, vulnerable oak roots near the soil surface to attach to.

The main body of the plant is underground and attached to a root to collect nutrients. The flowers are the only parts of the plant that break through the soil surface and appear in finger-like protuberances in late May or early June.

After the plant’s identity is revealed, another question always arises…

Are these plants killing oak trees?

No! These are usually fairly small perennials that only live about 10 years. Compared to the decades or centuries that the lifespan of a healthy red oak could last, that’s nothing!

A single host can be attacked by these parasites for many generations and experience no real ill effects.

Round, light green seeds of a plant that grows from dead oak leaves.

These fruits and the seeds they contain can be dispersed over long distances with the help of white-tailed deer, but they cannot grow without an oak tree nearby.

Conopholis Americana It is not a particularly common plant, but it is certainly noticeable throughout the forest that encompasses most of Awenda, thanks to the relative abundance of red oak hosts.

Stop by Awenda Provincial Park any time between June and August to see these unusual plants.

Not all wildflowers need to be pretty to be great!