Skip to main content

Parasitic Plants

Parasitic Plants

The parasitic mode of existence is frequently encountered among all life forms, including flowering plants. In this discussion a plant will be considered parasitic only if it produces a haustorium, the modified root that forms the morphological and physiological link to another plant (the host). Some plants, such as the ghostly white Indian Pipe (Monotropa ) are often called parasites, but are more properly termed mycotrophs (Greek mykes, meaning "fungus," and trophos, meaning "feeder"). Mycotrophs, which occur in many plant families, lack chlorophyll and are nonphotosynthetic, and their

Family Common Name Number of Genera (approximate) Number of Species (approximate) Parasitism Type Genera Example
Balanophoraceae* Balanophora family 18 45 Root, holoparasite Balanophora, Corynaea, Cynomorium, Thonningia
Cuscutaceae Dodder family 1 160 Stem, hemiparasite and holoparasite Cuscuta
Hydnoraceae Hydnora family 2 15 Root, holoparasite Hydnora, Prosopanche
Krameriaceae Krameria family 1 17 Root, hemiparasite and holoparasite Krameria
Lauraceae Laurel family 1 20 Stem, hemiparasite Cassytha
Lennoaceae Lennoa family 2 5 Root, holoparasite Lennoa, Pholisma
Santalales Sandalwood order
Loranthaceae Showy mistletoe family 74 700 Stem and root, hemiparasite Amyema, Phthirusa, Psittacanthus, Tapinanthus
Misodendraceae Feathery mistletoe family 1 8 Stem, hemiparasite Misodendrum
Olacaceae Olax family 29 193 Root, hemiparasite Schoepfia, Ximenia
Opiliaceae Opilia family 10 32 Root, hemiparasite Agonandra, Opilia
Santalaceae Sandalwood family 40 490 Root, hemiparasite Comandra, Santalum, Thesium
Viscaceae Christmas mistletoe family 7 350 Stem, hemiparasite Arceuthobium, Phoradendron, Viscum
Rafflesiaceae§ Rafflesia family 8 50 Stem and root, holoparasite Cytinus, Rafflesia
Scrophulariaceae Figwort family 78 1940 Root, hemiparasite Agalinis, Buchnera, Castilleja, Epifagus, Euphrasia, Pedicularis, Orobanche, Rhinanthus, Striga
* Including Cynomoriaceae.
Sometimes placed in Convolvulaceae (morning glory family).
Including Eremolepidaceae.
§ Including Apodanthaceae, Cytinaceae, and Mitrastemonaceae.
Including Orobanchaceae.

roots are associated with mycorrhizal fungi, which surround tree roots. Bromeliads such as Spanish moss (Tillandsia ) and some orchids are also sometimes mistaken for parasites, but these plants are actually epiphytes (Greek epi, meaning "upon," and phyton, meaning "plant"). Epiphytes use the other plant simply as a support and do not derive water or nutrients directly from their tissues. In true parasitic plants, the haustorium physically penetrates the host stem or root thus connecting to the water-conducting and/or sugar-conducting tissues (xylem and phloem, respectively).

The degree of nutritional dependence on the host varies widely among parasitic plants. Some parasites are photosynthetic and can therefore produce their own food from sunlight as is done by other green plants. Such hemi-parasites include root parasites such as Indian paintbrush (Castilleja, Scrophulariaceae) and stem parasites such as mistletoes (Loranthaceae, Viscaceae; see accompanying table). Some root hemiparasites can actually grow to maturity in the absence of a host plant, and hence are termed facultative hemi-parasites. Others, such as the mistletoes, must attach to a host in order to complete their life cycle and are thus referred to as obligate hemiparasites. Hemiparasites can be considered xylem parasites in that they derive only water and dissolved minerals from their hosts. In contrast, holoparasites, being nonphotosynthetic, must also obtain the carbohydrates found in host phloem.

Parasitism has evolved in angiosperms at least nine independent times, but, interestingly, not in monocots (grasses, palms, lilies, etc.). There exists more than 270 genera and 4,000 species of parasitic plants worldwide. Holoparasitism has evolved at least six times independently. In two families (Cuscutaceae and Scrophulariaceae) both hemi- and holoparasites can be found. Members of these families represent important organisms for studying the genetic changes that occur when photosynthesis is lost. For example, a root parasite of beech trees (Fagus ) found in Eastern North America is called beechdrops (Epifagus ). The complete deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequence of the beechdrops chloroplast genome has been obtained and is less than half the size of a typical photosynthetic plant, mainly owing to the loss of genes specifically involved in photosynthesis.

Other members of Scrophulariaceae represent some of the most economically damaging pathogens of crop plants in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Witchweed (Striga ) is a devastating pest on maize (corn), sorghum, and other grasses, while broomrape (Orobanche ) parasitizes sunflowers, tomatoes, and beans. Similarly, the spaghetti-like dodder (Cuscuta ) can become a problem weed on crops such as alfalfa. These parasites are difficult to eradicate because they produce thousands of tiny, dustlike seeds that persist in the soil and are easily moved from site to site. In North America, the genus Arceuthobium (dwarf mistletoe) destroys commercially important trees in the pine family (Douglas-fir, hemlock, pine, etc.). Unlike other members of its family (Viscaceae) whose seeds are bird-dispersed, dwarf mistletoes have evolved a fruit that explosively expels the sticky seed, which can reach a velocity of 27 meters per second and can travel up to 16 meters.

Although some parasitic plants are weeds, the vast majority are benign and often go unnoticed by the casual observer. Some of the most spectacularly beautiful flowers that exist in nature can be found in the showy mistletoe family (Loranthaceae). Many species produce long, tubular red flowers that are bird-pollinated. Indeed, the mistletoe bird (Dicaeum ) effects polli-nation when feeding upon the nectar and aids in seed dispersal when feeding on the fruits, a good example of coevolution.

Certainly, no treatment of parasitic plants would be complete without mention of Rafflesia, the queen of the parasites. This holoparasite has no stems, leaves, or roots but exists within the host vine (Tetrastigma, Vitaceae) as a fungal-like mycelium until flowering. At that time, the flower emerges from the host as a small, golf-ball sized bud and continues to grow until it is the size of a cabbage. Eventually it opens as a flower that may exceed 1 meter in diameterthe largest flower in the world. The spotted red flower has five leathery petals surrounding a deep cup that exudes a stench like that of rotting flesh, thus attracting flies (the pollinators). All species of Rafflesia are endangered owing to habitat loss in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

see also Endangered Species; Epiphytes; Fungi; Interactions, Plant-Plant; Mycorrhizae; Record-Holding Plants.

Daniel L. Nickrent


Calder, Malcolm, and Peter Bernhardt. The Biology of Mistletoes. New York: Academic Press, 1983.

Parasitic Plant Connection. [Online] Available at

Kuijt, Job. The Biology of Parasitic Flowering Plants. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969.

Press, Malcolm C., and Jonathan D. Graves. Parasitic Plants. London: Chapman &Hall, 1995.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Parasitic Plants." Plant Sciences. . 17 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Parasitic Plants." Plant Sciences. . (January 17, 2019).

"Parasitic Plants." Plant Sciences. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.