Written By George Johnson.

Posted on July 24th, 2017.

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Is that a really weird-looking pinecone? That was my first thought when I came across this bizarre plant the other evening while hiking.

Is that a really weird-looking pinecone? That was my first thought when I came across this bizarre plant the other evening while hiking. I’d never seen anything like it on any of my forest adventures, so I immediately wanted to know everything about it. I took some photos of it and the surrounding area for my future investigation into the identity of this bizarre white and brown creation:

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Back at home, I was able to identify it. Turns out, it’s a plant that goes by the common names Squawroot or Cancer-Root.

I can probably guess what you’re thinking, “Cancer-Root! You should probably get checked out by the doctor!” Don’t worry. It doesn’t cause cancer. The name Cancer-Root comes from the unique way this plant grows. You see, Cancer-Root isn’t like most plants. Most plants make their own food. They use chlorophyll (the pigment that makes plant leaves green) to turn sunlight into energy they can use. It’s a process called photosynthesis.

But Cancer-Root doesn’t have chlorophyll. It can’t make its own food. So how does it live? It’s a parasite. It steals nutrients from other plants, particularly oaks. When its seeds land in the soil, they sprout roots that burrow into the ground in search of a host plant’s root. If they find one, the Cancer-Root attaches to it. The host reacts by forming a bulge where the roots meet. That bulge resembles a tumor, hence “Cancer-Root.”

What I saw on my hike were the Cancer-Root’s stem and scale-like flowers. They bloom when a plant reaches 4 years old. Depending on where you are, you can spot these flowers beginning anywhere from April to July, and they’ll then persist through the summer.

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A new Cancer-Root stalk popping up.

The USDA lists Cancer-Root in New York as “Exploitably Vulnerable.” This means Cancer-Root has the potential to become threatened or even endangered if its habitat is at risk. These plants typically prefer older forests with a lot of oaks. Woods that have had their oaks removed because of logging often lack suitable hosts, so Cancer-Root won’t grow there.

Do the woods you own or hike in have a lot of oaks? If they do, keep a sharp eye out for this cool-looking parasitic plant during your forest adventures.


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