Biota of the Blue Ridge: Squawroot
My friend Dennis snapped this image on Saturday in Rock Castle Gorge, and I’ve taken the liberty to steal it from him this morning before I get back to my backlog of things from a busy image-gathering flurry of spring blooms from the past two weeks.
You could easily miss this PLANT. It pushes its way barely above the leaf litter early on, finally rising up six or more inches, often in rather dense clusters of curiously un-green stems covered with pale irregular (not bilaterally or radially symmetrical) flowers.
Squawroot (and the fall-blooming and almost equally colorless Beechdrops) is in the Broomrape Family, Orobanchaceae. Both lack chlorophyll (the genes are missing!), having evolved a parasitic relationship with a living host plant, often an oak tree. These plants are so finely attuned to and dependent on their host that their seeds will not germinate unless in the presence of “releasers” from the roots of their hosts.
Curiously, an alternative name for Squawroot is Cancer-root. It does have astringent properties and as the first name implies, was used to treat menopausal symptoms by the native Americans. It does not have anti-tumor properties from anything I have been able to find, so the alternative name is curious. Cancer is Latin for crab, and the flowers do somewhat resemble crab claws. I just fishing for an explanation here.
If you miss this plant “in bloom” you’re likely later on to mistake the cluster for a bunch of upright burnt pine cones, as it will turn dark, dark brown and persist for some while.