This past weekend during the Thanksgiving festivities, my cousin showed me some images she'd taken near her home on the other side of the state. Our discussion prompted a bit of research and resulted in this article.
Conopholis americana, or bear corn is a North American native that many of us may have never seen. It thrives in hardwood forests where oak and beech trees are plentiful and unlike most plants, is shy about showing its face in sunlight. Native to eastern North America from Florida and well up into Canada, this wildflower sends up its distinctive corncob-like fruiting stalks in late spring. Once its fruits are mature, the spikes wither and fade away until the next season. Seed germination is entirely dependent upon proximity to host plant roots. The seeds have no food reserves and are not capable of photosynthesizing, so oak or beech roots must be available. The tiny (almost spore-like) seeds germinate and the thread-sized roots attach to the host where the plant grows a root system capable of sustaining the blooms. Generally, maturity is in about 4 years when the plant sends up its distinctive corn-like stalks and the process repeats itself. Often, large colonies flourish where conditions are right.
This odd little plant doesn't require sunlight to live, because it doesn't photosynthesize. It is a parasitic plant that gets its nourishment from the roots of others. Oak and beech trees are specific hosts and bear corn cannot exist without being attached to the roots of these trees. Most of this plant is never seen, as it forms large galls or tumors on the host tree's roots. This is probably how one of its other common names (cancer root) was born. Bear corn has no cancer-fighting properties that we know of, however it was used extensively in Native American medicine. It has definite astringent properties, which was useful for poultices and treatment of wounds. The compounds constrict blood vessels and play a large part in stopping bleeding. It was also used for inducing labor when a pregnancy went past term, which contributed to another common name, squaw root. Other uses included diuretic, sedative, expectorant, vermifuge (that means it is good for expelling intestinal worms...ewwww!) and laxative. Humans aren't the only ones that use this plant medicinally, bears seem to crave it after coming out of hibernation. The laxative properties purge their systems after they awaken from a long winter's sleep.
Wildlife, especially bears, do eat the berry-like fruits along with coyotes, raccoon and sometimes deer. It is non-toxic and is also edible for humans, although 'edible' is probably a subjective term. The high astringency gives the uncooked fruits a very bitter taste and most people cook it before consuming. I would term this as a survival food, as opposed to adding it to your foraged delicacies, although some folks report that it can be quite tasty sautéed in butter with bacon crumbled over it. Personally, I could eat cardboard if it was sautéed in butter and garnished with bacon, so that doesn't really mean much. However, it does have nutritional value, containing beta carotene, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium and Vitamin C, making it an excellent source of nourishment in the wild. Just be aware that in some states, it is listed on the threatened and vulnerable lists and shouldn't be harvested. Also, remember that this plant will not transplant, needing the specific hosts and the root system that nourishes it. If you wish to try your hand at cultivating it, scoop a little soil and leaf litter near the season's withered plants and deposit it under your oak trees. Experts indicate that red oaks, Querqus rubra make the best hosts.
Conopholis americana is a distinctive plant that resembles nothing else in the area although it does have a western counterpart Conopholis alpina that grows even down into Mexico. Keep an eye out for it as you enjoy spring hikes and remember that the bears may be doing the same thing!
Images courtesy of Leslie Tingle and taken in Owen County, Kentucky (thanks Les!)