Fall is for Beechdrops

Guest post by Amy Wilson

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) growing at the base of an American Beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) in Prince William County.

Hallowe’en is coming!  It’s time for all the traditional fall celebrations, like carving jack o’lanterns, drinking apple cider and… searching for parasitic plants!

What?  No, really, it’s true!  Fall is a great time to head out for a walk in the woods with your kids or a friend and look for beechdrops.  They can be found throughout the woods in Prince William County (and much of the Eastern half of the U.S.), growing near the roots of American Beech trees.

Like Dracula, beechdrops survive by draining someone else’s life force:  they have no chlorophyll, so they can’t make their own food like most plants.  Instead, as their name implies, they parasitize the beech tree under which they are found by drawing nutrients from its roots.

Just as vampires depend on a healthy human population to feed upon, beechdrops depend on open spaces that support healthy beech trees; and like any successful parasite, beechdrops generally don’t overburden their hosts to the point where their survival is threatened.

Although they are brownish-pink, yellowish, or white in color and not showy – in fact, if you don’t look at them closely, you might mistake them for dead stalks of a summer plant that has died back – beechdrops are, in fact, wildflowers.

They have both fertile and infertile flowers; the fertile (chasmogamous) flowers are found near the tips of the stem, and open to reveal a small yellow pistil.  The infertile (cleistogamous) flowers are found near the middle and base of the stem, and are closed.

Beechdrops, members of the broomrape family, are 6 to 22 inches tall, and bloom from August to October.  Their leaves are small and scalelike, not prominent, and are brownish instead of green, since they lack chlorophyll.

Beechdrops are annuals, so while they do recur in the same area each year, they propagate from seed.  Plants from the previous fall remain as dry, brown stalks through the winter, spring and summer.

Some people know beechdrops by their other common name, “cancer-root,” given because early European settlers mistakenly thought they might be useful for treating that ailment.

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