An Introduction to Parasitic Plants



Indian pipe

Parasite - the very word is enough to send shivers down the spine. It conjures images of blood-sucking leaches or worse, the chest burster scene from the movie Alien. We have a deep evolutionary disdain for organisms that make a living by living in or off of something else. However, I think it is due time to drop our preconceived notions of these organisms. Far from being antagonistic or detrimental, more and more we are discovering that parasites play important roles in the ecology of our planet. They can serve as indicators of ecosystem health and even promote biodiversity, something we are all scrambling to understand and preserve.

It is estimated that nearly 50% (give or take) of the lifeforms on this planet are parasites. The animal kingdom is full of them and, indeed, those are the ones we are most familiar with. However, there are plenty of parasitic plants out there as well, roughly 4,000 species actually. Some of these are subtly parasitic whereas others are so specialized that one would hardly recognize them as a plant without a bit of scrutiny. Parasitic plants are quite diverse, hailing from many different families. There is no way to generalize them all but I would like to give you an introduction to this group. At the end of this, I hope you walk away not only with a new sense of wonder for the botanical world, but also a greater appreciation for parasites as a whole.

The world of parasitic plants can roughly be broken down into two major categories - stem parasites and root parasites. As you can probably guess, this has to do with where their parasitism occurs. Stem parasites include some of the mistletoes (order Santalales) or dodder (Cuscuta spp.), which tap into their hosts tissues through their stems. The root parasites do all of their parasitizing under the soil. Their roots tap into the roots of the plants growing around them. All this is done using specialized structures called "houstoria."


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