I stumbled down the slip-face of a sand dune and heard Adesh call out to look to my right. There, poking out of the sand was a colourful spike: red with yellow flowers. “That’s a root parasite”, Adesh told me. Indeed it was a parasite, there was no green anywhere on it, so it could not possibly be synthesizing its own food. Since it was standing far from any visible plant, I was willing to take Adesh at his word. Later, when I read about the parasitic plant, the Desert Hyacinth or Cistanche tubulosa, I found that it is widespread, growing as far away as the Taklamakan and parts of the Arabian desert. It is said that the seeds are extremely hardy, and can remain alive for years, being triggered into growth when some root wanders nearby.
What was this one parasitizing? Looking around I could see only one tree nearby. You can see it in the photo above, behind the Desert Hyacinth. This is the ubiquitous Capparis decidua, the tree called ker. This bears the sour berry which is one of the ingredients of the desert food called ker sangri. The tree is highly branched. The branches are green, and there are seldom any leaves. I’d been very excited to spot a leaf emerging from a split in a stem earlier in the day. You can see that in the photo alongside. In any case, this was very likely to be the tree that the parasite was feeding upon. It makes sense that the roots of the ker tree range far in search of water, and therefore are vulnerable to parasites.
It seems that the Desert Hyacinth is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a cure for erectile dysfunction. I guess any upright and unbranched plant looks like it could be a cure for such matters. Since they are often in the mind, the “cure” could even work in a significant number of cases. A quick look at Google Scholar shows that several chemicals extracted from this parasite have interesting possible effects: from protecting the liver, slowing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, to helping with diabetes.
Adesh pointed out another interesting thing which you can see in the featured photo: there is the track of a beetle which circles the parasitic plant before burrowing into the sand at the base of the flowering stalk. It was clearly after food. I wonder whether it was the host or the parasite which would become the beetle’s food. When you look closely, the desert is alive.