Parasitic Plants

There exists in the plant world some rather shady fellows. Several of these organisms live and thrive along the PCT and I thought you might be interested in learning about them. These are parasitic plants.
I will begin with the least sinister and most beautiful of them, the genus Castilleja commonly known as Paintbrushes. They are very diverse in the western states. Here are several species.






These plants make their living by sprouting near other plants and attaching their roots to these hosts. This way they can tap into larger more established plants root systems and steal water and nutrients from these plants, but they still photosynthesize their own sugars. The bright colored parts of the plant are actually bracts and not petals. They are modified leaves used to attract hummingbirds in most cases.
The next plant I want to introduce is mistletoe. This plant is similar to Castilleja in the way it makes a living except instead of growing in the soil, it grows right out of the branches of trees. Seeds that are pooped on to the branches by birds sprout and tap into the trees vascular system and take water and nutrients and in some species such as dwarf mistletoe also take sugars, being complete parasites of their hosts.

The next plant is the Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea.) It is often noticed because of its scarlet coloration. It grows in the sierras and other high elevation forests and it emerges underneath conifers soon after the snow melts. It takes advantage of a mutual relationship between fungi in the soil and conifers. The trees supply the fungi with sugars and the fungi supply the trees with nutrients and water from the soil. The snow plant attaches to the fungi in the soil and steals the nutrients and sugars from the fungi. This is why the plant is red and has no green chlorophyll. It doesn’t need to make any sugars when it can more easily steal them.

And finally, the most sinister of all the parasitic plants… Dodder. Cuscuta californica is the species found out here on the PCT. It takes plant parasitism to a whole new level. Imagine the vines from Jumanji or the vines from the maze scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. They grab onto you and constrict you. But dodder is worse. It then sinks organs called haustoria into you which merge with your vascular system and slowly drain all you’re life out. This is just what dodder does to its host plant. It appears like little orange strings all over shrubs in the desert and the tendrils it sends out whirl around slowly until they contact a stem where they proceed to coil tightly around it and sink their haustoria into the plant. It then proliferates until the host is overwhelmed or it reaches another neighboring plant and then attacks it. To make things worse, it can even transmit viruses and other pathogens between plants if they’re both under attack by the same dodder. After it’s seeds sprout it can actually smell nearby plants and grow towards them. It’s lifestyle is so extreme that as soon as it reaches a host plant it’s initial root system dies off and the plant isn’t connected to the ground at all. It is orange because it has no need for chlorophyll since it can steal all it’s nutrients and water and sugars from its host plant. It’s basically a life sucking, strangling, STD spreading monster.



6 thoughts on “Parasitic Plants”

  1. Absolutely brilliant! FYI I cut and pasted this little dissertation for future reference. I’m hoping you manage this thru the Sierra and beyond!
    Thank you

  2. Terrific pics Matt. Interestingly, I never thought I would use beautiful and parasite in the same sentence.

  3. Hey I found you through Carrot, and then saw your post on the PCT pages about this parasitic plant post!

    Snow Plant is my favorite….it’s so beautiful. It makes me nostalgic for the Sierras. I really love your blog! I live around Los Angeles and am within easy driving distance of the San Gabriel Mountains…let me know if you guys need anything (beers, sandwiches, whatever) and I will happily oblige!

  4. Sheriff Woody – You are AWESOME! I love your botanical tutorials and your blog in general and so many nice pics! Thank you!! Enjoy your lovely trail days!

  5. Thanks for your lovely photos and info. I’m enjoying your blog. The dodder endemic to Hawaii is called kauna’oa – a thoroughly insidious plant. But in Hawaii, when life gives you dodder, you make leis!

  6. You are doing a great job with your blog! Loving it, I make sure we all keep tabs on you doing our lunch meetings! Miss you! Office just isn’t the same 😦

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