This unusual looking plant is Boschniakia hookeri, known by the common name Vancouver groundcone, small groundcone or poque.
It’s easy to see how it could be mistaken for some kind of conifer cone that has fallen to the ground, but in fact it is a parasitic plant that is completely dependent on its host.
In BC, it is most commonly found growing on the roots of salal (Gaultheria shallon), but is also parasitic on other plants in the Ericaceae family including arbutus (Arbutus menziesii), kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum).
It can occur in a variety of colours, ranging from pale yellow to red to deep purple. When the flowers fade and wither to brown, the plants most closely resemble a cone.
Although Boschniakia is parasitic, it’s unclear what damage it actually does to the host plant. (Perhaps we need to revise our idea of so-called “parasitic” relationships.)
It’s a plant that there is still much to learn about. For example, it’s known that seeds can survive for decades in the soil. But they may not grow for 7 to 12 years after they’re dispersed. Why? It’s not entirely clear. There is evidence that the seeds require a chemical signal from the host plant to begin germination, but there may be more involved.
It’s also unclear what if anything pollinates Boschinakia hookeri. One researcher noted: “We have made many attempts to observe possible insect pollinators … throughout the day as well as in late evening and early mornings … we have seen few insects and found no consistent pattern of insect visits to the flowers.”
As well, although researchers know that recurring flowering takes place with Boschniakia, they’ve yet to determine a pattern. Some plants may bloom in successive years, then skip a year or two, then bloom again.
Interestingly, there are a few creatures known to dine on Vancouver groundcone: nematodes nibble on them, banana slugs chew on the flowers and mountain beavers gobble anything aboveground.
In BC, it’s found in a few locations on the coast. It’s more frequently found on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, rarely found on the southwest mainland and Haida Gwaii.
It’s also found in Washington State, Oregon (where it’s considered at risk) and California (where it’s considered critically imperiled).
This spring, you might do well to take a second look when you see a “cone” when you’re botanizing on the coast.