Scaly, 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.
One 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…
The 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.
- 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