Bear Corn

bearcornScaly, brown digits poke from the underworld, pointing skyward. They look slightly disturbing, like bloated pine cones or partly rotted corn cobs. These protrusions are the flowering parts of Conopholis americana, a plant that grows attached to the roots of oak trees. Conopholis has turned its back on its botanical inheritance: the plant has no chlorophyll. Instead it lives as a parasite, feeding on another species’ labor.

bearcorn3One of the common names for the plant is “bear corn,” an apt name for a plant that plays a surprisingly important role in the life of bears in eastern North America. Even though Conopholis is hardly an abundant species, the plant comprises ten to fifteen percent of the diet of bears in the Smoky and Shenandoah Mountains. When the total annual energy content of various botanical “bear foods” is added up, acorns top the list (67% of available energy) but amazingly Conopholis comes in second (16%). Although some websites and books claim that the bears eat the whole “cob,” biologists who have actually witnessed bears dining on the plant report that it is the little fruits that interest the bears, not the whole flowering stalk. I suspect, though, that the sample size for these observations is quite low…

bearcorn4The productivity of Conopholis in terms of energy provided per hectare is consistent from year to year, unlike blueberries and acorns whose fruitfulness can be highly variable. This, along with the early fruiting of the plant, make the species particularly important for wild bears. Lactating mother bears are said to be especially dependent on the plant.

So one way or another, oak forests nourish bears: bear corn in the late spring from parasites on roots, blueberries and other delights in the light summer shade of the oak understory, and acorns in the autumn. All this is evidence for the Ursic principle: the idea that the Universe as we know it seems wonderfully designed to bring about that supreme pinnacle of life, the bear. Black-robed bear philosophers rightly point out that an objective analysis of the data strongly supports the notion that the Universe’s parameters are improbably fine-tuned and that this fine-tuning has bear written all over it. Other thinkers, mostly grizzly bears, believe that these woods are just one of many realities. An infinite number of realities exist in this Multibearse, only some of which contain bear corn.

Sources:

  • Life History Studies of Conopholis americana (Orobanchaceae). Wm. Vance Baird and James L. Riopel. American Midland Naturalist , Vol. 116, No. 1 (Jul., 1986), pp. 140-151
  • Production of Important Black Bear Foods in the Southern Appalachians. Roger A. Powell and D. Erran Seaman. Bears: Their Biology and Management , Vol. 8, A Selection of Papers from the Eighth International Conference on Bear Research and Management, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, February 1989 (1990), pp. 183-187
  • Seasonal Foods and Feeding Ecology of Black Bears in the Smoky Mountains. Larry E. Beeman and Michael R. Pelton. Bears: Their Biology and Management , Vol. 4, A Selection of Papers from the Fourth International Conference on Bear Research and Management, Kalispell, Montana, USA, February 1977 (1980), pp. 141-147
  • Energetic Production by Soft and Hard Mast Foods of American Black Bears in the Smoky Mountains. Robert M. Inman and Michael R. Pelton. Ursus , Vol. 13, (2002), pp. 57-68

28 thoughts on “Bear Corn

  1. Robley Hood

    I saw many a bear in my young summers in North Carolina, but I never knew about “bear corn” and the Universe’s fine-tuning for “bear.” Thank you, David, for the information so amusingly rendered.

    Reply
  2. David Robertson

    One of the members of my organization called me last spring to come to his woodland to see an exciting “alien” plant he found growing around his oaks. I suspected the identity and, sure enough, it was C. americana (though my botanical reference gave it the common names squawroot or cancer-root, and didn’t mention bear corn). Alas, there are no bears in our northern Piedmont woods, so the bear corn will have to go uneaten–unless its by something other than bears.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Deer also love the fruits and act as excellent dispersers for the seeds. However, the plant comprises a much smaller portion of the annual energy budget of deer. When the bear come back, the parasites will be waiting for them, I suspect.

      Reply
  3. Lucy

    One of my wood’s guides growing up called this plant Squaw Root, believing it to have been gathered by native American women to deal with one of those dastardly female thingamabobs. I think we can safely say that without said female “problems,” one might not have ever plumbed the medicinal depths of these woodsy denizens.
    Reading up on similar parasitic plants like the Indian Pipe or Ghost Plant on a fun Appalachian blog called “The Blind Pig and the Acorn,” I came across an excerpt from “Wildflowers Worth Knowing” by Neltje Blanchan published in 1917. She doesn’t just anthropomorphize plants, she calls out the sinners as well! Broom-rape, I believe is the same thing as Bear Corn or Squaw Root. Any way here ’tis her thoughts on these parasites:
    “Among plants as among souls, there are all degrees of backsliders. The foxglove, which is guilty of only sly, petty larceny, wears not the equivalent of the striped suit and the shaved head; nor does the mistletoe, which steals crude food from the tree, but still digests it itself, and is therefore only a dingy yellowish green. Such plants, however, as the broom-rape, Pine Sap, beech-drops, the Indian Pipe, and the dodder–which marks the lowest stage of degradation of them all–appear among their race branded with the mark of crime as surely as was Cain. No wonder this degenerate hangs its head; no wonder it grows black with shame on being picked, as if its wickedness were only just then discovered! To think that a plant related on one side to many of the loveliest flowers in Nature’s garden–the azaleas, laurels, rhododendrons, and the bonny heather–and on the other side to the modest but no less charming wintergreen tribe, should have fallen from grace to such a depth! Its scientific name, meaning a flower once turned, describes it during only a part of its career. When the minute, innumerable seeds begin to form, it proudly raises its head erect, as if conscious that it had performed the one righteous act of its life.”

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Wow — that is a fabulous quote! I’m glad she gave it a little positive turn at the end there. I’d be interested to hear the bear’s morality tales about plants. Perhaps they regard the maple as the most degenerate plant: no bear corn below, no acorns above, and its taking over the forest…

      Thank you for sharing this excerpt!

      Reply
      1. Lucy

        Thought you would like this. I am thinking that she might actually be a humorist. As for the morality of multiplying maples, perhaps the bear knows about maple syrup and is moved by autumn’s show of colors. That’s almost enough for me! Thanks for your posts. Delightful!

        Reply
  4. Katie Brugger

    I also knew this as squaw root, and always loved its strange appearance. You’ve just made it more special to me.
    I’d love to hear more details of that Bear philosophy. Maybe in one of those alternate universes the chestnut trees didn’t die-off and the bears are still gorging on chestnuts.

    Reply
  5. Donna Black

    As I understand it, during the settler days spring was know as ‘starving time’ because although many things are in bloom and setting fruit/grains heads, there is nothing new to eat yet, and winter stores would have run out or very low by spring. It makes sense that wildlife would have another option, especially those who have spent a winter with little to no food.

    Reply
  6. Grace Renshaw

    This reply has nothing to do with your post. This weekend, the last of the fledglings in the nest two robins built atop a drainspout sheltered under the eave of the second story of our house was apparently killed by crows. My husband had watched the drama for more than a week–crows flying near the nest, and parents chasing them off. We could see three heads, and then, after a crow attack, he could see only one head. Sunday morning at dawn he heard cawing outside the window, leapt up, ran downstairs and outside, and shouted at the crows, scaring them away. Alas, too late–he saw both of the parents come back, check the nest and fly away. Later, I realized he may have at least succeeded in thwarting the crows of their prey. I found the last fledgling dead in the garden, underneath the nest, and buried him.

    Two robins are building another nest atop the gutter under the eave of our garage, a location I believe is less vulnerable to crows because it’s lower and more protected by vegetation. The second-story location was very exposed, and looked to me to be harder to defend. I’m hoping they are the same pair, and that this nest of fledglings will reach maturity. When I’m sure there are eggs in the new nest, I will stop letting our cats out until the young ones have successfully launched.

    How much of a danger are crows to the fledglings of other birds, typically?

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Hi Grace,

      It is hard to watch this kind of drama. About 50% of all nests get hit by some kind of predator. Crows certainly like eggs and nestlings (and are well known in ornithological circles for their role as major nest predators), but so do blue jays, ‘possums, raccoons, cats, rat snakes, even chipmunks. The reproductive rate of birds is usually able to keep ahead of the game, though. Robins, for example, can renest several times in one season, if needed. Predation is only a big problem in places where a huge number of predators live, so keeping cats indoors is a good plan. The young birds are especially vulnerable.

      I hope that this next attempt is more successful!

      Best wishes, David

      Reply
  7. batesvillian

    The Ursic principle. I love it. For us, the principle manifests itself each year at just about this time, as young males come out of the mountains looking for territories of their own. It happened again last weekend. Invariably, we forget to bring in our bird feeders at night, and invariably we’re awoken by the dogs’ frantic barking as the bear mauls the sunflower and thistle feeders. Actually, it’s far beyond frantic — there’s something wild and savage in the dogs’ instinctual response to just one whiff of the ursine. Dog vs. bear must go back further than domestication, perhaps all the way to dire wolves and cave bears. All I know is that there’s some deep time involved in that relationship.

    Once I made the mistake of letting the dogs out during one of the nocturnal visits, and they flew straight toward the bear — even the little one, a terrier/Chihuahua mix, who for that moment was fearless as a wolf. And for this human, seeing a bear up close is a reminder of just how big they are; even the relatively small eastern black bears are amazingly powerful creatures. One look at a tube feeder, broken in two, and pockmarked with tooth punctures, tells the story. Despite the undeniable thrill of having bear visits in the night, we take the feeders inside for a couple of weeks so they won’t get used to raiding them. The Ursic principle is a powerful thing. Thanks again for yet another timely and evocative post.

    Reply
    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you for this wonderful comment. The bear-dog-human axis is full of old old stories. Sewanee is mostly bearless so we’re spared the trouble as well as the joy they can bring. I remember seeing one “work” a dumpster in upstate NY: the power involved was awesome and terrifying.

      Reply
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  10. Marlene Coleman

    Thanks for posting the article about Bear Corn. I just spent about an hour trying to figure out what my husband found in the woods while visiting friends in western Virginia. I finally found your article, after looking at thousands of pictures!

    Reply
  11. Melinda

    Thank you for this excellent writeup, David. I have linked it to a photo I posted on Flickr. People have read and appreciated your commentary, as have I.
    flickr.com/photos/melystu
    tag “conopholis”–the most recent one.

    Reply
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  14. wooddogs3

    I was only trying to ID a plant that I found in the Sandia Mountains, and stumbled across the vast Ursic Principle. I pondered briefly the role of humans in this part of the Multibearse, and concluded that we were probably designed to test the Bears and allow them to find martyrdom and true greatness, rather like Satan in that other Principle…

    Reply
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