Plant ID: Cancer root

In the summer I found this plant in the woods on our property near Torrance, Ont. I can’t find it in any of my plant or mushroom books. What is it?

—Donna Di Lello, Gullwing Lake, Ont.

That’s Conopholis americana, a.k.a. squaw root, cancer root, or bear corn, a parasitic plant that steals nutrients and water from the roots of its host trees, usually red oaks. Conopholis is a holoparasite, which means it has no chlorophyll and can’t produce any of its own food through photosynthesis. (Hemiparasites, such as mistletoe, on the other hand, do photosynthesize for at least one stage of their life cycles, but they get nourishment from their hosts as well.)

The white balls in the photo are berries. In May and June, the plant has yellowish or cream-coloured flowers. Not the prettiest specimen while in its prime, as it ages, squaw root dries out, turns brittle and brown, and looks like a pinecone.

While Conopholis americana grows in forests throughout eastern North America, another species, alpina, is found in southwestern North America. The genus Conopholis has been classified so far as only having those two species, but researchers are looking for others. A May 2011 article in the American Journal of Botany, by University of Toronto professors, suggests there may be at least three in total.