Beechdrops

(This column first appeared in the October 9, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    Beechdrops is a name that seems more appropriate to things you chew like chicklets -- something from Canajoharie perhaps.

    But no, beechdrops is the name of a wildflower and an unusual wildflower at that. Like Indian pipes, beechdrops have none of the chlorophyll of most plants and thus are not green. On recent hikes I have been seeing many of these slight twigs that always occur near beech trees -- the host on which they are parasitic. At this season they look like many of the other annuals that have died and turned brown, but for them this is no change.

    My attention called to these odd little plants, I sought out information about them in various libraries. Most of what I found comes from old texts, books that I always find agreeable reading. Consider some of what these earlier authors had to say, anthropomorphism and all.

    Neltje Blanchan (1900): "Nearly related to the broom-rape is this less attractive pirate, a taller, brownish-purple plant, with a disagreeable odor, whose erect, branching stem without leaves is still furnished with brownish scales, the remains of what were once green leaves in virtuous ancestors, no doubt. But perhaps even these relics of honesty may one day disappear. Nature brands every sinner somehow; and the loss of green from a plant's leaves may be taken as a certain indication that theft of another's food stamps it with this outward and visible sign of guilt. The grains of green to which foliage owes its color are among the most essential of products to honest vegetables that have to grub in the soil for a living, since it is only in such cells as contain it that assimilation of food can take place. As chlorophyll, or leaf-green, acts only under the influence of light and air, most plants expose all the leaf surface possible; but a parasite, which absorbs from others juices already assimilated, certainly has no use for chlorophyll, nor for leaves either; and in the broom-rape, beech-drops, and Indian pipe, among other thieves, we see leaves degenerated into bracts more or less without color, according to the extent of their crime. Now they cannot manufacture carbohydrates, even if they would, any more than fungi can."

    Thomas Meehan (1878) about the broom-rape family to which beechdrops belongs: "It is far more likely that the word 'rape' refers to the parasitic habits of the plant. Formerly this word had a much wider significance than at present. 'To commit rape' and 'to commit robbery' were interchangeable terms, and it is quite natural, therefore, that a plant which makes its 'living by rapine on the broom' (a British shrub) should be called the 'Broom-Rape.'"

    "The poets seem to have overlooked this curious plant, but it was once quite famous in medicine. Dr. Titford...says that it is called 'Cancer-Root.' 'Every part of it,' he continues, 'is very astringent and bitter. It is considered a powerful remedy in dysentery, but it is chiefly celebrated as a cure for cancer, and formed the principal ingredient of Martin's Powder. Externally applied to obstinate ulcers, it has been very successful.' The other ingredient of 'Martin's Powder,' we are told by Dr. Lindley, was white oxide of arsenic. It is needless to say that this 'remedy' has now fallen entirely into disuse."

    And finally, Thoreau (1851): "These are parasitic plants which have their roots in the branches or roots of other trees.... There are minds which so have their roots in other minds as in the womb of nature, -- if, indeed, most are not such?!"

    Delightful words about a drab little wildflower. -- Gerry Rising


LITERATURE CITED

Blanchan, Neltje. 1900. Nature's Garden: An Aid to Knowledge of Our Wild Flowers and Their Insect Visitors. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company.)

Meehan, Thomas. 1878. The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, and Popular Aspects, Volume II. (Boston: L. Prang and Company.) Pp. 93-96.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, eds., Bradford Torrey and Francis Ha. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1906) II page 205 (entry for May 20, 1851).