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12 Examples of Parasitic Plants

Plants can easily survive as long as they have the right habitat, sunlight, and water they need, making them self-sustaining creatures. There are some species, though, that are dependent on the presence of other thriving flora to survive. Many examples of parasitic plants exist, which aggressively attach themselves to specific hosts to obtain the necessary nutrients for their survival. In this article, we’ll examine some of these parasitic plants and explore how they utilize their host species.  

12 Examples of parasitic plants

1. Thurber’s stemsucker

Thurber’s stemsucker
Thurber’s stemsucker | image by Matt Berger via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 4.0

Scientific name: Pilostyles thurberi

One of the parasitic plants you’ll find in the southwest of North America is Thurber’s stemsucker, which is more common in deserted areas because it likes to infect the Dalea species that live there. 

Thurber’s stemsucker lacks roots, leaves, and even chlorophyll, thus relying on other plants for their supply of water and nutrients. You may observe these organisms as they attach themselves to the stems of their hosts and produce small flowers that measure less than 1/8 inch.

2. American mistletoe

American mistletoe
American mistletoe | image by Douglas Goldman via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Scientific name: Phoradendron leucarpum

You may not be aware of this, but the American mistletoe, which happens to be one of the most beloved Christmas decorations, is actually a parasitic plant that infects numerous deciduous trees. They commonly inhabit the branches of trees and produce white berries that can grow up to a size of 0.24 inches. Despite being regarded as a parasite, people still find it beautiful as a decoration, and some birds even eat the berries. 

3. California groundcone

California groundcone
California groundcone | image by BakerSt10 via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientific name: Kopsiopsis strobilacea

If you happen to be in California and come across cones growing from the forest floor, chances are high that you have stumbled upon the California groundcone. They attach themselves to madrone trees and manzanita shrubs using their specialized roots in order to obtain the necessary nutrients, as they’re unable to perform photosynthesis. California groundcones spend the first nine months of the year underground before finally emerging to produce purple flowers. 

4. Corpse flower

Corpse flower
Corpse flower | image by shankar s. via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Rafflesia arnoldii

The largest flower in the world is actually a rare variety that blooms alone and emits an unpleasant odor. This odor is meant to entice a large number of pollinators, such as flies so that the plants can successfully reproduce. 

Since they’re parasites, they must obtain the necessary water and nutrients by feeding on Indian chestnut vines. They’ll then emerge from the vines as knops, which are brown, cabbage-like buds that bloom over a couple of days.

5. One-flowered broomrape

One-flowered broomrape
One-flowered broomrape | image by Thayne Tuason via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

Scientific name: Orobanche uniflora

One-flowered broomrape, a parasitic plant native to North America, relies on species from Asteraceae and Saxifragaceae to obtain nutrients. They can reproduce using seeds but only produce a single flower that ranges in color from purplish to white on each stem. Throughout North America, you can find these broomrapes most commonly in areas with plenty of suitable host plants, such as forests, thickets, mountains, and along stream banks. 

6. Australian Christmas tree

Australian christmas tree
Australian christmas tree | image by Jean and Fred Hort via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Nuytsia floribunda

The Australian Christmas tree, also known as the moodjar in its native land, is a tree species that can reach a height of 32 feet and bears bright yellow-orange blossoms from October to January. This tree attaches its roots to the roots of other nearby flora to acquire the necessary nutrients.

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Additionally, it doesn’t have a specific host and instead attaches itself to any available plant it encounters. Despite its parasitic nature, the Nyungar peoples of Southwest Australia protect this plants and hold it in high regard, using its bark, flowers for mead and gum for food.

7. Giant red Indian paintbrush

Giant red indian paintbrush
Giant red Indian paintbrush | image by Gertjan van Noord via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific name: Castilleja miniata

The giant red Indian paintbrush is a parasitic wildflower that can be observed in various regions of western North America. This particular species of Indian paintbrush is quite common in habitats that have areas that are both moist and receive sufficient sunlight.

It reaches a height of over 2 feet, has lance-shaped leaves, and produces yellow-green flowers with red edges. They bloom between May and September, and as parasites, they attach their roots to the roots of other plants to absorb nutrients from them. 

8. Dwarf mistletoe

Dwarf mistletoe
Dwarf mistletoe | image by Malcolm Manners via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Arceuthobium americanum

Another parasitic plant from western North America is the American dwarf mistletoe, which typically infects Lodgepole Pines. They only have short, bushy swirls of yellowish stems with no leaves and flowers with no petals.

Once fully ripened, these plants burst and produce one-seeded berries. The sticky seeds then attach themselves to the stem of a nearby flora, effectively creating a new host. The host may weaken, sustain damage, and become more prone to fire due to drought. 

9. Red rattle

Red rattle
Red rattle | image by Gertjan van Noord via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific name: Pedicularis palustris

This species is native to Europe and Asia, and you can find them in swamps, fens, marshes, wet meadows, and ditches. You’ll notice that they have blossoms with a reddish-purple color and that honeybees and bumblebees are the typical pollinators of these flowers. Red rattles are only partially parasites because they can perform photosynthesis, but even so, they must attach to other root systems when they’re young plants to survive. 

10. Beech-drops 

Beech-drops | image by Katja Schulz via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Epifagus virginiana

Beech drops thrive exclusively by attaching themselves to the roots of American beech trees. Similar to other parasitic plants, they lack chlorophyll but can sustain themselves by obtaining water and nutrients from their hosts.

From July through October, this flora produces small white and purple flowers. Additionally, it serves as an indicator that the forest is in good health. Although beech drops parasitize American beech trees, they don’t inflict significant harm to the trees. 

11. Ghost plant

Ghost plant
Ghost plant | image by Gertjan van Noord via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific name: Monotropa uniflora

When you take a single glance at this species, you’ll immediately recognize it as the ghost plant, due to its strange and ghostly appearance characterized by its slender and transparent stems. They don’t possess any chlorophyll and depend entirely on the plants from the Russulaceae family to acquire the necessary nutrients, which they obtain indirectly through mycorrhizal fungi. You’ll most likely find them in the dark areas of the forests since ghost plants don’t require sunlight. 

12. Field dodder

Field dodder
Field dodder | image by Forest and Kim Starr via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Cuscuta campestris

Field dodder, which is native to central North America, infects numerous herbaceous plants, including alfalfa and other legumes. Since they typically wrap their vines around their host plants and prevent their growth, they’re regarded as pests for many crops. Researchers have demonstrated that this parasite can cause a reduction in forage yield, reaching up to 57% within two years.

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  • “Marsh Lousewort as an Ecosystem Engineer in Oxfordshire Fen Restoration Projects”, J. A. Webb, June 2020, freshwaterhabitats.org.uk
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About Louise Robles

Louise writes about a wide variety of topics including wildlife, animals, and nature. She's developed a growing interest in animal biology and categorization due to her fascination with how they interact with one another and with their surroundings.