Biota of the Blue Ridge: Squawroot

Squawroot: image by Dr. Dennis Ross

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.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Thankls for this article. Me and my boyfriend were doing some hiking off the Blue Ridge Parkway at the trail head of the Rattlesnake Lodge trail (right before Tanbark Tunnel if you are traveling North from Asheville, trail head on left) I was doing some ametuer photography of the wildflowers and other plants and we came across this species. We had absolutely no idea what it was, but were taken aback by its unique structure and color. We were completely confused as to what it was ( a mushroom, fungus, carniverous plant? who knew!) after doing some research in some field guideds at a bookstore near were we live, we suspected it was squawroot, but the picture in the book wasn’t as good as the one you have hear on the site! Our mystery has been solved! Thanks for all the resources you have here on your website. I’m sure your treasure trove of information will come in useful again!
    Thanks again and have a great day!
    -Kellie Hathorn