Today’s photograph and write-up are courtesy of UBC Botanical Garden horticulturist Jackie Chambers:
I first saw this fantastically phallic crimson plant while working in southern Spain. Often found in salty areas, Cynomorium coccineum has a native distribution across the Mediterranean (including parts of northern Africa) and Saudi Arabia. This plant does not have any leaves; in fact it doesn’t produce any chlorophyll at all. Instead, it derives energy by parasitizing the roots of other salt-tolerant (halophytic) plants.
Cynomorium coccineum spends most of its life underground as a rhizome. The thick, fleshy stems emerge from the soil after the winter rain, and can reach 15-30 cm. The stems can range in colour from dark red to almost black. Tiny scarlet flowers are so densely packed along the stems that it is almost impossible to see individual flowers. Instead, they give the whole stem a fuzzy texture. The Parasitic Plant Connection has a wonderful selection of photographs: Cynomoriaceae.
These stems are supposed to be delicious when eaten fresh (the flavor is often compared to apples). However, they are more prized for their medicinal qualities. Given the plant’s colour and shape, it is clear why it has been traditionally used to treat blood diseases and sexual problems. Bedouins call it ‘Tarthuth’, and refer to it as ‘the treasure box of medicines’ due to its many uses. For details on how Cynomorium has been used historically, visit Cynomorium: Parasitic Plant Widely Used in Traditional Medicine.
Daniel adds: The species seems to only be commonly known as cynomorium (in English). It is one of two species in the genus Cynomorium, the sole genus within the Cynomoriaceae.