This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Scaly stem short and nearly subterranean, bearing few scapes a span high: calyx-lobes mostly much longer than the tube, subulate, usually attenuate: corolla violet-tinged, and flower violet-scented, an inch long: the lobes obovate and rather large. (Gray's Synoptical Flora of North America. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States, and Wood's Class-Booh of Botany,.)
THE mere lover of wild flowers will not call this one beautiful, though he rarely misses a chance to gather it, and to bring it home as among the singular illustrations of the curiosities of flora. And yet it is pretty, and especially so is a small bunch of them, and they possess the additional charm of a delicate agreeable fragrance. But even the most indifferent to botany as a science will not rest satisfied with knowing that he has found a mere curiosity. The plant appears to be nothing but flowers and slender flower stalks; and, even when the earth about these stalks is cleared away, it exhibits nothing but a little scaly stem attached to the roots of some other plant. Even those who are usually indifferent to botany as a science will inquire into the purposes of such an organism, and take an interest in the many questions connected with its behavior which attract the scientific man as well. In our picture the little mass of scales (Fig. 1), about an inch long, comprises all that might properly be called the plant, and this is wholly under ground. It has attached itself to a piece of oak root (Fig. 2), and in this way derives its sole support. But it does not confine itself to the oak. In Pennsylvania the writer has found it also on the beech, although this tree has one species of parasite, the Beech-drops, or Epiphegus Virginiana, which seems to confine itself especially to that tree. But this one is a sort of general lover. While in the North attaching itself seemingly to the roots of any deciduous tree, in the South it is reported as growing in pine woods; and the inference is that the roots of the pine afford it sustenance in such cases. De Candolle, in his "Prodromus," notes that it has been found on composite herbaceous plants, especially on the Golden Rod, or Solidago; and it is probable that it has no choice, but will attach itself to anything that comes first. This fact is of itself a particularly interesting one, for it has been suggested that those parasites which have green leaves, like the mistletoe for instance, feed only on the crude sap, which by the aid of their green leaves they elaborate to suit the special wants of their own organisms. On the other hand, the colorless parasites are supposed to feed on the sap already elaborated by the parent plant, not having any green leaves of their own, through which, as the student knows, the food of plants is usually prepared. If this be so, our Aphyllon, feeding on so many varied kinds of plants, should present varied chemical combinations. It is hardly probable that any great difference will be found, but the suggestion may serve to show in what direction original discoveries may yet be made. Again, we know that in scaly bulbous plants, as in the lily, the scales are imperfectly developed leaves; and that as the plant grows, perfect leaf-blades appear. We may therefore from analogy look on the scales of our present plant as being imperfectly developed leaves; and yet no one has ever known leaves to be perfectly produced. It is not probable that these scales are of any more use to the plant in its present condition than though the stem was perfectly round, and . all trace of scales absent; and it is such facts as these which are often employed in aid of the doctrine of evolution. It would be contended that this plant was not always leafless as now, - that at some time in the long past it had perfect leaves, but assuming a parasitic character, and finding itself in a condition to do without leaves, failed to produce them perfectly any longer. This view might receive additional strength in the case of this Aphyllon, for it is not probable that the ancestors of any modern parasitic plant had originally parasitic habits. A tree or foster-plant must be formed first before a parasite has anything to live on, even in the strictest sense in which we may view the order of creation; and with the modern geological views of time there is no difficulty in believing that parasites came into existence long after the plants on which they feed.
The absence of leaves on the parts seen above ground suggested its botanical name Aphyllon, which is Greek literally for "without leaves." The earliest authors thought it a true Broom-rape, or Orobanche; but Dr. John Mitchell, an early botanist of Virginia, sent, in 1740, to Peter Collinson, of London, a paper in which he proposed to make thirty new genera of Virginia plants, and he proposed to divide this from Orobanche, and make it a separate genus as Aphyllon. It does not seem to have been approved by his contemporaries, for Gronovius, in his second edition of "Flora Virginica," published in 1762, makes "Aphyllon of Mitchell" but a synonym of his "Orobanche caule unifloro," the practice of having a single specific name as well as a generic one not having then been adopted. In time the difference from Orobanche was recognized, and it came to be known as Phelypaa, Gymnocaulis, Anoplon, and Anoplanthns, under which with Orobanche it will yet have to be traced in European works; but American botanists of.the present day are properly ruled by the law of priority, and this decided Dr. Gray to go back to the oldest name, which is Aphyllon of Dr. Mitchell.
The manner in which our Aphyllon is distributed is among the very interesting facts connected with its history. Usually the species of parasitic plants are not remarkable for being widely scattered, but this is found over a vast extent of territory. Clayton, in his notes of the Flora of Virginia, published by Gronovius, pronounced it "very rare," and perhaps few botanists ever observed it covering any large space in any one location, and yet there is scarcely a collector in any part of the United States who has probably not met with it at some time or another. It flowers in June, and is found in the extreme north of our territory down to Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, as well as all along the States on the Pacific coast. Mr. Sereno Watson collected it in the Wahsatch Mountains in Utah at an elevation of 7,000 feet. It is not yet positively known whether it is an annual or a perennial.
1. The scaly root-stock or stem.
2. Root of an oak supporting the parasite.
3. Flower with the corolla divided lengthwise, to show the arrangement of the stamens and pistils.