Friday, April 22, 2011

LOOK FOR: Bear Corn (or Cancer Root...or Squaw Root)

Conopholis americana breaks one of the fundamental rules you learned about plants in biology: it has no chlorophyll. It doesn't photosynthesize.

bear corn
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
But it is a plant -- a parasitic one. It latches on to the roots of oak trees and steals nutrients.

The Latin name Conopholis is nicely descriptive: a scaly (pholis) cone. Not needing to photosynthesize, the plants don't have true leaves. But they do have little scales growing along their length.

This is the time of year that we notice this plant the most, because we're looking for morels. From the corner of your eye, it's about the right size and color for a really big, juicy morel. It always makes me look.

Conopholis does prove one botanical rule: sometimes a plant has so many common names, it can be better just to stick with the Latin. Squawroot might be the most commonly-known common name. I'm not sure where that one comes from, but many people find the term "squaw" offensive.

And there are better options. Parasitism can cause large knobs to form on oak roots, giving Conopholis the name cancer root. But my favorite name comes from the fact that black bears are said to forage on these plants when they come out of hibernation: bear corn.

Squaw root, Conopholis americana
Photo credit: Janet Powell

But it will be a few months before bear corn looks like corn. In a month or two, the plants will bloom, sending out a little white flower above each scale. After that, they'll make little seedpods where each flower was. Lined up along the stalk they do look a little bit like corn.

And it's all from energy stolen from a tree.

Conopholis americana
Photo credit: dogtooth77
Have you seen bear corn this year? Know any other tales about this unusual plant? Leave us a comment!


AHAJR said...

I found this plant in Delaware and Pennsylvania near or under oak trees. I noticed the oak leaves in the last photograph and a reference to oak roots in the narrative above. How close is the association?

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

I'm not sure if it's absolutely exclusive but I agree they're most often on oaks.

Anonymous said...

I found this plant in Knoxville, TN on June 10, 2013

Anonymous said...

I have seen this extensively on the southern appalachian trail.. only at higher elevations in Georgia and NC. In April it was less developed, but now they have the seedpods.
Also, others online have mentioned that this plant was talked about on an episode of Man Woman Wild. They apparently roasted and ate it like corn on the cob. I also saw other comments which indicated that it was sometimes used to induce vomiting. As such, I dont think I would rely on it as a food source.

tom sventy said...

i JUST encountered several here, in Eastern Penna (Bucks Co). I've seen them for years, where i forage for mushrooms & never knew what they were. Thanks for the info (Chanterelles grow near where mine are)

Mary said...

I saw them in Shenandoah National Park in late June.

wildernessgal said...

Found bear corn in Shenandoah National park yesterday.My dad didn't let me eat it.

Elizabeth Hargrave said...

Cool that so many people are finding this. It really is quite common if you know to look for it...but not so abundant in any one place that I'd seek it out as a food source. And none of my go-to sources list it as edible. Traditional use as a medicinal probably means it won't kill you, but could have some effects you might not like. I'm not messing with it -- I'd rather be looking for mushrooms that time of year!

Patricia Candal said...

Have seen this in South Carolina under oak trees...photographed some of them today. Am looking for reliable info re: to medicinal uses

Jeromy Gumm said...

I found a whole hillside full here in Ohio. Lake Logan to be specific. Wasn't sure what to think of it at first.

Jim Flis said...

We just saw this on Trail 2 in the Indiana Dunes State Park. Took a while to find out what it is. First time we encountered it in the Dunes.

Anonymous said...

Squawroot (Conopholis americana) is also called “cancer root” or “bear corn.”
There's nothing offensive about the name. Because of its astringent and estrogen-like properties, this plant was used by Native Americans to treat menopause symptoms, bleeding in the bowel and uterus, and headaches. Additionally, the stalks of may be eaten directly or dried to brew teas. It does not induce vomiting or produce hallucinations.

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