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Common Name: Squawroot
Scientific Name: Conopholis americana

(The information for this species page was gathered in part by Ms. Carol McKenzie for Biology 220W during Spring 2009 at Penn State New Kensington)

Squawroot - image credit Deborah SillmanSquawroot (Conopholis americana) (also called “cancer root” or “bear cone”) is a low growing, brown, scaly plant that reaches heights of one foot at maturity. It is found often in dense clusters in oak and beech forests throughout eastern North America. The plants most closely resemble brown, scaly pine cones protruding up out of the ground. Image credit: Deborah Sillman.

 

Squawroot is a non-photosynthetic plant that relies on a parasitic connection to the roots of host trees (most species of oak and also beech) for its nourishment. It is a perennial that lives up to ten years. Most of the plants biomass is found underground. The cone-like structures that we see are its small, specialized, flowering stems.

Squawroot is more common in older forests, and its presence and relative abundance in a site may be significant indicators of forest age and stability. In areas where oak forests are being replaced by secondary forests that are dominated by maples or other non-oak tree species, squawroot is an increasingly uncommon and possibly threatened plant.

It is not clear in the literature if squawroot seriously compromises the health of its host tree. It is likely that it, by itself, may exist in a very stable parasite host symbiosis with its much larger and longer lived host oak or beech tree. But, if other stresses combine with squawroot’s presence, the health and vitality of the host tree may be reduced.

Life cycle
A squawroot seedling grows underground for approximately four years. During this time the roots of the seedling attach to the roots of its host tree forming large, swollen knobs (possibly the source of the name “cancer root”). At four years, the plant sends up its scaly, flowering stems. Yellow to cream-colored flowers develop on these stems. These flowers produce a scent that has been variously described as something between carrion and cabbage. Flies and bumblebees are the primary pollinators of squawroot.

Uses by Other Animals
Both the seeds and the aging stalks are consumed by many mammals including white-tailed deer and black bear (hence the name “bear cone”). The seeds are widely dispersed in the feces of these mammals.
Squawroot can be consumed both as a food and also as a folk medicine. The above ground stalks may be eaten directly or dried to brew teas. The plant has astringent properties and estrogen-like activities. It was used by Native Americans to treat menopause symptoms, bleeding in the bowel and uterus, and headaches.


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