This small perennial is notable because of its unusual appearance. Squawroot, also called Cancer Root, is a parasitic plant which resembles a pine cone and emerges in clusters from the forest floor. Its main hosts are trees in the Red Oak family (Quercus rubra), and occasionally other oaks. Being parasitic, it does not possess chlorophyll and lacks all green pigment; its leaves have been reduced to small, brownish “scales.” It parasitizes oaks by attaching itself to the root system of the tree and drawing nutrients and energy. However, it has not been seen to cause significant damage to its host. Tim Park, a 2010 REU at Mountain Lake, found in his project that “C. americana had no demonstrable impact on oak growth as measured by radial growth of stems, however preliminary data suggest that oaks may be able to combat parasitism, most likely through passive transport of tannins.” Squawroot is a member of the parasitic Broomrape family (Orobanchaceae).
In the spring, it emerges as a thick spike 7.6-17.8 cm (3-7 in) long, covered in cream-colored, unopened flowers. When these flowers do open, often in May-June, they are initially erect; however, as they age, they tend to spread farther away from the main stem. Each five-parted flower is about 1.3 cm (½ in) long, and is yellow-to-cream colored. Later in the season, each flower is replaced by a small seed pod. By the end of the summer, the flowering stalk is withered and brown, and is replaced the next year by fresh stalks from its root system. Squawroot can also spread to new locations through the transportation of seeds.
Squawroot is known to have astringent medical properties. A decoction of Squawroot can be used to treat hemorrhages and cure headaches. Furthermore, one story tells that the name “Squawroot” can be attributed to its use by Native American women to relieve the symptoms of menopause.
Squawroot is usually found in small clusters on the forest floor that are attached to the same host root system. It can occur in any habitat where its host species is present, and is found throughout most of the Eastern U.S. and Canada.
These specimens were collected next to Chapman Cottage, under the spread of a large Red Oak.
Article by Hazel Galloway
- Tim Park’s REU Project: Host-parasite interactions between Conopholis americana and Quercus spp.