Friday, April 22, 2011

LOOK FOR: Bear Corn (or Cancer Root...or Squaw Root)

Conopholis americana breaks one of the fundamental rules you learned about plants in biology: it has no chlorophyll. It doesn't photosynthesize.

bear corn
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
But it is a plant -- a parasitic one. It latches on to the roots of oak trees and steals nutrients.

The Latin name Conopholis is nicely descriptive: a scaly (pholis) cone. Not needing to photosynthesize, the plants don't have true leaves. But they do have little scales growing along their length.

This is the time of year that we notice this plant the most, because we're looking for morels. From the corner of your eye, it's about the right size and color for a really big, juicy morel. It always makes me look.

Conopholis does prove one botanical rule: sometimes a plant has so many common names, it can be better just to stick with the Latin. Squawroot might be the most commonly-known common name. I'm not sure where that one comes from, but many people find the term "squaw" offensive.

And there are better options. Parasitism can cause large knobs to form on oak roots, giving Conopholis the name cancer root. But my favorite name comes from the fact that black bears are said to forage on these plants when they come out of hibernation: bear corn.

Squaw root, Conopholis americana
Photo credit: Janet Powell

But it will be a few months before bear corn looks like corn. In a month or two, the plants will bloom, sending out a little white flower above each scale. After that, they'll make little seedpods where each flower was. Lined up along the stalk they do look a little bit like corn.

And it's all from energy stolen from a tree.

Conopholis americana
Photo credit: dogtooth77
Have you seen bear corn this year? Know any other tales about this unusual plant? Leave us a comment!