What Are Parasitic Plants and Should You Consider Growing Them?

Most people have heard of plants such as the Venus flytrap, which eat insects to generate energy.

However, did you know that there are plants that actually draw sustenance from each other rather than just sunlight or insects?

Parasitic plants are those that take nutrients from another living plant. They usually grow on other types of plants, sometimes causing so much damage that it dies. The most common type of parasitic plant – and the one you may have heard the most about – is the mistletoe.

However, there are plenty of other parasitic plants for you to be aware of.

Here’s what you need to know.

Contents

What are parasitic plants?

You can have memories on Christmas of plunging under the immortal vine to kiss your sweetheart.

Did you know that the beloved mistletoe is actually a parasite—and has the ability to wreak serious havoc on other plants?

Mistletoe is not the only parasitic plant, but it is one of the most famous. There are over 4000 different parasitic plant species in the world. They are all heterotrophs, dependent on other plants for their nutrient and water needs.

They can extract essential resources from these plants by using modified roots called haustoria. These dig deep into the host’s vascular system, thus sucking up all the water and nutrients they need.

How can parasitic plants affect other plants?

There are a few ways in which parasitic plants affect other plants.

Some cannot complete their life cycle without being dependent on another plant, while others can survive without the support of a host. Some parasitic plants attach to the roots of a host while others attach to the stem.

Finally, some can produce their own chlorophyll, and are considered hemiparasitic, while others rely exclusively on the host plant for this and are considered holoparasitic. Often, holoparasitic plants take on a pale yellow color.

Although parasitic plants are undeniably interesting, they extract so many nutrients and so much water from other plants, it can stunt the growth of the host plant and even kill it.

If parasitic plants are left to grow on their own near food crops in your garden, they can also disrupt your harvest, as you can imagine.

Because of this, it’s a good idea to take a quick list of what you plan to grow. Are there any specimens you intend to ground as parasites in any way? If so, you’ll need to be very careful about where you plant them.

examples of parasitic plants

There are all kinds of parasitic plants out there. Mistletoe is one of the most obvious but of course, it’s not the only option. If you are thinking about growing parasitic plants, either for their unique behavior or for some other reason, here are some you might want to consider.

1. Mistletoe

Mistletoe is perhaps the most famous of all parasitic plants. It usually attaches itself to shrubs or trees, using its haustorium to draw water and nutrients.

With small evergreen leaves and beautiful white berries in pairs, this plant is quite attractive and is often seen as a symbol of the holiday season.

There are several types of mistletoe species – together, they are known to parasitize hundreds of shrub and tree species. All species of mistletoe are considered hemiparasites because they perform some photosynthesis themselves (hence the green leaves).

Mistletoe is often considered a pest, but many gardeners continue to grow it for use around the holidays. Not only that, it is an important food source for many types of animals including birds. Some species of mistletoe also serve as perches and nesting sites for various birds.

Despite its benefits, mistletoe has the potential to be quite destructive. Use that as a conversation piece (or twist!) the next time someone tries to sneak a kiss under a sprig of this parasitic plant!

2. Dodder

Dodder is another common parasitic plant. It forms large clusters of yellow, leafless vines on top of its host. It uses root-like organs called haustoria to cut the stems of hosts. These haustoria take away all available nutrients and water, often killing the host plant.

The strangest thing about Dodger is that it can understand its hosts. It knows which neighboring plants will make good hosts and will then actively grow in that direction until it reaches them. Scary!

3. Australian Christmas Tree

The Australian Christmas tree is probably one of the most beautiful parasitic plants you will find. It is native, as you might guess, to Australia, where it is found on top of nearby plants in arid regions. It flowers when other species are dormant, making it an attractive option for many gardeners.

Because it has its own green leaves, it can photosynthesize on its own. However, it steals water from its neighbors to enable it to thrive in drought-like conditions.

It has a large network of root connections with nearby plants, separating their xylem vessels to steal their water supply.

These trees are beautiful and hardy to say the least, but can be destructive. In addition to killing nearby plants, the roots of this tree are so strong and “resolute” that they have been known to cut underground power and utility lines!

4. Corpse Flowers

The corpse flower is often touted as the world’s largest individual flower because when you look at this plant, it’s hard to see any type of foliage. Instead, your eye will be especially drawn to the giant bright reddish-brown bloom (it’s up to 3 feet wide!).

It is found in the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, so it is probably not a plant that you will soon be growing in your backyard garden.

Not only this, the plant of this forest smells like rotting flesh. It produces this scent in an effort to attract flies that feed on carrion to pollinate it and help produce sticky fruit. Because it has no leaves, it cannot perform its own photosynthesis. As a result, it depends entirely on the nutrients it receives from the surrounding vines.

5. Thurber’s stemsucker

A desert plant, the stem of Thurber is found growing in the southwest regions of North America. It lives on shrubs in the pea family and only grows to a quarter-inch tall—so again, probably not a plant you’d grow in isolation in your garden.

It’s important to know about this parasitic plant, however, if you plan to grow anything related to peas. It is usually harmless due to its size, living within the stems of its hosts. You will realize this only when it begins to pierce through the bark of the host plant to produce flowers.

Growing Parasitic Plants: Should I Do It?

Growing parasitic plants is one way to add life, variety and interest to your garden. It’s not the right choice for everyone – there are some instructions for their care that you need to keep in mind. Of course, you have to make sure that you are not planting them in a location where they will harm the health of nearby plant species.

Otherwise plant! Parasitic plants are unique and fun to grow – as long as you are aware of their unusual needs.

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