Epifagus virginiana (L.) W. Bartram
Leptamnium virginianum (L.) Raf.
I was wondering what killed all the little plants that we were passing as we hiked up Beech Hill in New Hampshire. All the plants were about a foot high, dark red-brown, stripped of their leaves, perhaps by deer. No sense photographing them, I figured, since they would be impossible to identify without any leaves or flowers.
Shortly before we finished our hike I changed my mind. Can’t hurt to try. So I took a few photos. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that these were perfectly healthy. They lacked leaves because they didn’t need them, and they weren’t green because they aren’t photosynthetic. As for flowers, they were right there in front of my nose, but small and inconspicuous, a deep shade of red-purple similar to that of the stem. Beech drops are parasites, deriving their energy from the roots of the beech trees that were all around us, natives like the trees upon which they prey.
Identification: Plants are 6-20" (15-50 cm) high, reddish brown in color, but herbaceous, not woody. Stems are light brown with purple stripes, darkening with age. Leaves are vestigial and nearly invisible, often described as scales. Flowers are about ½" (1.3 cm) long, shaped like a tube, sometimes square-edged, appearing alternately along the stems, a mixture of deep red/purple and white or yellow. From a distance their color is brownish, blending with that of the stems, so the flowers are easily overlooked. They bloom from August to October.
Epifagus virginiana at Illinois Wildflowers
Epifagus virginiana on the New England Wildflower Society’s GoBotany site
Epifagus virginiana at the University of Wisconsin's Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium
Epifagus virginiana on the Connecticut Botanical Society's Connecticut wildflowers site
Epifagus virginiana on Plants for a Future, a resource and information centre for edible and otherwise useful plants
Epifagus virginiana at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Epifagus virginiana description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 12 Oct 2018.