Parasitic or Hemiparasitic Desert Plants

These plants are parasitic in nature, meaning that they derive all or part of their nutrients from other plants. However, this does not mean that they are not important to the desert ecosystem; they provide food and shelter to a birds, insects and other wildlife.

15 plants found
Common Name Details
Desert Paintbrush Desert Paintbrush wildflower in the Mojave

Desert Paintbrush is hemiparasitic on the roots of grasses and bushes and is in the Broomrape family. Paintbrush is a generalist hemiparasite, so it will use a variety of host plants but does tend to prefer some such as sagebrush. It draws nutrients and water from the host plant. In fact, it can photosynthesize and survive without a host plant, but usually does not do very well. It is not an aggressive parasite and does not usually kill the host plant, but can give other plants a competitive advantage. You will usually see them protruding through their host plants or growing from the perimeter of the host. As with many types of desert plants, Desert Paintbrush can concentrate selenium derived from desert alkaline soil types and can be potentially very dangerous if the green plant parts of roots are eaten. However, some Native Americans consumed the flowers.

Ash Gray Indian Paintbrush

Ash-grey Indian paintbrush is a hemiparasitic (partial root parasite) plant that is similar to others species in the broomrape family in that they grow "haustoria" which are root projections that penetrate the roots of host plants to draw their water and nutrients. Haustoria usually form and connect with the roots of hosts shortly after germination of the plant. The radicle (the first part of the growing plant to penetrate the soil), forms a ring of hair-like projections and then branches out. Since it is a hemiparasite, it can survive on its own without a host, but will usually be smaller than ones attached to host plants.

Purple Owl's Clover Purple Owl's Clover wildflower in the desert

Purple Owl's Clover is in the same genus (Castilleja) as Paintbrush. As with other Castillejas, it is a hemiparasite so it derives some of its nutrients and water from other plants. Especially if they are not attached to a productive host plant, the leaves will be very small. The "haustoria" (part of the plant that penetrates the roots of other plants) makes it through the host cell wall and plasma membrane but does not penetrate the plant's cell membrane itself, thus keeping the host alive but utilizing its resources.

Texas Paintbrush Texas Paintbrush wildflower in the desert

Texas Paintbrush (or Woolly Indian Paintbrush) is found in California and northern Baja - not in Texas so the name can be a bit misleading. It is a perennial plant hemiparasitic plant that often is found attached to Sage, Chamise, or grasses but can utilize other hosts as well.

Wyoming Paintbrush

Wyoming Paintbrush is sometimes known by many other names including Narrow-leaved Indian paintbrush, desert paintbrush, Wyoming desert paintbrush, Wyoming paintbrush, linaria-leaved Indian Paintbrush, and just Indian paintbrush. It is a particularly tall Paintbrush species, growing 2-4ft. in height. It is much like other Castilleja species in that it is a hemiparasite, drawing a portion of its nutrient requirements from other plants through their roots.

Desert Bird's Beak

Desert Bird's Beak is in the Broomrape family similar to the familiar Indian Paintbrush. The root hairs penetrate into host plant roots and from then on funnels nutrients and water to the parasitic plant.

Rigid Bird's Beak

Rigid Bird's Beak is also known as Bristly or Stiffbranch Bird's Beak. It is an annual hemiparasitic plant that is similar to the Paintbrush Species and also belongs to the broomrape family.

California Dodder California Dodder plant in the desert

California Dodder is a very unusual fully-parasitic plant that is very conspicuous in the desert due to its neon orange color. It creeps over bushes sometimes making them completely orange. Its vining quality comes from the fact that it is in the Morning Glory family. It appears as mostly fleshy stems that project haustoria (protuberances that attach to host plant). It does have tiny leaves that are little more that scales along the plant stems because they do not need to conduct photosynthesis since the plant receives its nutrients directly from the host plant. Dodder also does have tiny urn-shaped flowers.

Small-Toothed Dodder

Small-Toothed Dodder is an orange-colored parasitic vining plant that covers plants in Joshua Tree and Creosote communities. It prefers host plants such as Cheesebush (Ambrosia salsola) and Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata). It has fleshy vine-like stems with tiny flowers because it is in the Morning Glory family like other Dodders. The flowers have small serrations which give the plant its name.

Pima Rhatany Pima Rhatany shrub in the desert

Little Leaved Rhatany produces floral oil instead of nectar for its pollinators. Bees in the genus Centris collect the oil as food for their larvae.

Cooper's Broomrape Cooper's Broomrape plant in the desert

As with most species of Broomrape, Cooper's Broomrape is very strange-looking, lacks clorophyll, and does not have apparent leaves. It looks like a stubby root protruding from the ground with beautiful purple flowers. It seems to prefer species in the Asteraceae family, such as Brittlebush, Burrobush, and Sagebrush.

Parish's Broomrape

Parish's Broomrape, named for early botanist Samuel Bonsall Parish, appears as a short, root-like protuberance from the ground. It is a parasitic plant that likes host bushes in the Asteraceae family, such as Menzies' goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii).

Dune Food Dune Food plant in the desert

Dune Food is a very interesting and beautiful parasitic plant that is also known as Desert Christmas Tree and Scaly-Stemmed Sand Plant. It is a perennial plant in the Borage family. It often uses host plants such as California Croton, Rabbitbrush, Burrobush, and Yerba Santa. As with many other parasites and hemiparasites, it lacks clorophyll giving it a brown or white color base color. Dune food has tiny purple flowers with white margins that often cover the entire stem. 

Bollean Mistletoe

Bollean Mistletoe is a very interesting hemiparasitic plant. It has the ability to both photosynthesize and draw nutrients and water from their host trees and plants via haustorium as many other hemiparasites do, such as Broomrapes. It has very showy berries that are red or white that birds love, and is found attached to branches in trees. The Mistletoe genus is "Phoradendron" which comes from Greek meaning "tree thief".

Desert Mistletoe Desert Mistletoe plant in the Mojave

Desert Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that is most often found growing on Ironwood, Paloverde, Catclaw, or Mesquite trees. The Phainopepla, a member of the Silky Flycatcher family is commonly seen eating the berries. The bird consumes the berries and the seeds pass through their digestive system as they move about from tree to tree, thus distributing the seeds. Native Americans ate the ripe berries, but avoided other parts of the plant as it is toxic.