Parasitic Plants


Parasitic flowering plants exploit other flowering plants for water and nutrients by specialised structures called haustoria. Part of the haustorium, the intrusive organ, penetrates host tissue to establish contact with the conductive tissue of the host. Parasitic plants occur throughout the world in all types of plant communities except the aquatic. Generally, the parasite weakens the host so it produces fewer flowers and viable seeds or the value as timber is reduced. However, some parasites, mostly annual root parasites belonging to Orobanchaceae, may kill the host and cause considerable economic damage when attacking monocultures in agriculture, and much effort is done to control these harmful parasites.

Key Concepts:

  • Parasitic plants exploit other plants for water and nutrients by help of haustoria.

  • Host penetration is a result of pressure combined with enzymatic disintegration of cell membranes (plasmalemma) and host cell walls.

  • A xylem bridge is the most general anatomical character of the haustorium.

  • Translocation of water and nutrients is always from host to parasite.

  • The host range is high for most parasitic plants.

  • Evolution of the primary haustorium made holoparasitism possible.

  • A few species of parasitise crops are becoming weeds of huge economic importance.

Keywords: endophyte; exophyte; haustorium; hemiparasite; holoparasite; host range

Figure 1.

Parasitic families arranged according to parasitic types. Family names are followed by number of genera. *Santalaceae has recently been split into five families (see text). Broken lines indicate a few exceptions from main type. Colour codes: Black, nonparasites. Green, hemiparasites. Brown, holoparasites. Dark green, several species of Cuscuta almost or completely lack chlorophyll and hence are holoparasitic. Percentages are in relation to the total number of parasitic plants. Apodanthaceae, Cytinaceae and Mitrastemonaceae used to be in Rafflesiaceae. Orobanchaceae includes parasitic Scrophulariaceae. Copyright © Henning S. Heide‐Jørgensen.

Figure 2.

Male inflorescences of Arceuthobium douglasii, a hemiparasitic stem parasite on Pseudotsuga menziezii in western North America. The endophyte extends to the shoot tips of the host making the wood useless as timber. Copyright © Henning S. Heide‐Jørgensen.

Figure 3.

Rafflesia keithii, a holoparasitic root parasite on Tetrastigma spp. in Borneo. The exophyte consists only of the flower with a diameter up to 90 cm. Photo courtesy of Thomas Læssøe.

Figure 4.

Orobanchecrenata infecting pea.

Figure 5.

Phelipanche ramosa infecting tomato.

Figure 6.

P. ramosa infecting tobacco.



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Further Reading

Bhandari NN and Mukerji KG (1993) The Haustorium. New York: Wiley.

Curtis's Botanical Magazine 26(4) 2010. – Special edition on parasitic plants.

Fineran BA (1985) Graniferous tracheary elements in haustoria of root parasites. Botanical Review 51: 389–441.

Heide‐Jørgensen HS (2011) Parasitic plants. In: Simberloff D and Raymánek M (eds) Encyclopedia of Biological Invasions, pp. 504–510. University of California Press.

Irving LJ and Cameron DD (2009) You are what you eat: interactions between root parasitic plants and their hosts. Advances in Botanical Research 60: 87–138.

Kuijt J (1979) Host selection by parasitic Angiosperms. Symbolae botanicae Upsalienses 22: 194–199.

Leake JR (2004) Myco‐heterotroph/epiparasitic plant interactions with ectomycorrhizal and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 7(4): 422–428.

Mathiasen RL, Nickrent DL, Shaw DC and Watson DM (2008) Mistletoes: pathology, systematics, ecology, and management. Plant Disease 92: 988–1006.

Nickrent DL The parasitic plant connection.

Press MC and Phoenix GK (2005) Impacts of parasitic plants on natural communities. New Phytologist 166: 737–751.

Stewart GR and Press MC (1990) The physiology and biochemistry of parasitic Angiosperms. Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology 41: 127–151.

Visser J (1981) South African Parasitic Flowering Plants. Cape Town: Juta.

Weber HC (1978) Schmarotzer: Pflanzen die von anderen leben. Stuttgart: Belser Verlag.

Weber HC (1993) Parasitismus von Blütenpflanzen. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftl. Buchge.

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Rubiales, Diego, and Heide‐Jørgensen, Henning S(Feb 2011) Parasitic Plants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021271]