I have a hard time with shrubby species. They just don't stand out to me like herbaceous plants or giant trees. As such, my identification skills for this group of medium-sized woody plants are subpar. However, every once in a while I find something that I can't let go. Usually its a species with a trait that really stands out. This is how I came to know buffalo nut (Pyrularia pubera). Its unique inflorescence was like nothing I had ever encountered before.
There is good reason for my unfamiliarity with this species. It is largely restricted to the core of the Appalachian Mountains, although there are records of it growing on Long Island as well. Regardless, it is not a species I grew up around. The first time I saw its flowers I was stumped. I simply couldn't place it. Luckily its unique appearance made it easy to track down. I was happy with buffalo nut for the time being but I was surprised yet again when I sat down for a chat with someone who knows woody species much better than I do.
As it turns out, buffalo nut belongs to the sandalwood family, Santalaceae. This makes it a distant cousin of the mistletoes. Like most members of this family, buffalo nut lives a parasitic lifestyle. Although it is fully capable of photosynthesis and "normal" root behavior, under natural conditions, it parasitizes the roots of other tree species. It doesn't really seem to have a preference either. Over 60 different species hailing from 31 different families have been recorded as hosts.
When a buffalo nut seed germinates, it starts by throwing down a taproot. Once the taproot reaches a certain depth, lateral roots are sent out in search of a host. These roots "sniff out" the roots of other species by honing in on root exudates. When a suitable root is found, the buffalo nut root will tap into its host using specialized cells called haustoria. Once connected, it begins stealing water and nutrients. Buffalo nut roots have been known to travel distances of 40 feet in search of a host, which is pretty incredible if you ask me.
It is easy to look down on parasites. Heck, they are largely maligned as free loaders. This could not be farther from the truth. Parasites are a healthy component of every ecosystem on the planet. They are a yet another player in a system that is constantly changing. What's more, the presence of parasites can actually increase biodiversity in a system by keeping certain species from becoming too dominant. Buffalo nut should not be persecuted. Instead it should be celebrated. It is yet another species that makes the Appalachian Mountain flora so unique.