Beechdrops – A Native Parasitic Plant
Written by Karen Williams, Master Gardener Volunteer, and Hanna Smith
At the beginning of October, a homeowner in Guilford County emailed a question, trying to identify something that was growing in her yard. It came up every fall, had flexible, almost rubbery feeling stems, and had some strange “roots”. After some
detective work, it was identified as Beechdrops, Epifagus virginiana. While many people are familiar with Indian Pipes or Ghost Plant, Monotropa uniflora, another parasitic plant that grows near beech and other trees, Beechdrops does not seem as well known. As a matter of fact, as I was running on a trail the very next weekend after getting this question, I noticed some beechdrops out of the corner of my eye. It took a minute for my mind to register what I saw, but I stopped, walked back a few feet and saw them. I probably would have never noticed them or knew what they were had it not been for the question from the client.
Beechdrops is a member of the Broomrape family (Orobanchaceae). It is parasitic, meaning it depends entirely on its host plants for food, nutrients, and water. It contains no chlorophyll and obtains its nutrients from the roots of American Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). Beech trees can be identified by their smooth grey bark and serrated leaves – they’re easy to spot in fall & winter as the dead leaves that are light tan stay on the tree until spring.
Unlike many parasites, Beechdrops are annual– each plant dies at the end of the growing season, so they don’t damage the trees. They have beautiful small, cream and purple-striped tubular flowers from August through November and brown & purple striped stems that usually dry up and last through winter.
So next time you’re out near beech trees, take a close look underneath. Maybe you too can spot this unusual native plant.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Profile
West Virginia Wildlife Magazine Article on Beechdrops
NC State University Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox Profile
Virginia Tech Dendrology Plant Profile