It Looks Like a Fungus But It Is Not a Fungus
Despite having the common name of the Maltese mushroom, Cynomorium coccineum (Cynomoriaceae) is in indeed a plant, one very strange and holoparasitic.
As holoparasite, Cynomorium coccineum has virtually no chlorophyll, thus being unable to photosynthesize to live on its own, so this plant spends most of its life underground (it is a geophyte) as a form completely parasitic of other plants.
The Maltese mushroom grows in dry, rocky or sandy soils, often in salt marshes or other saline habitats close to the Mediterranean coast.
When not blooming, the Maltese mushroom is simply a rhizome, an underground stem, attached to the roots of its host plant through especial cup-like appendages called haustoria. It is a root parasite and has no root system or leaves. After the winter rains, it blooms in late spring. A dark-red or purplish slow-growing inflorescence emerges from the soil on a fleshy, unbranched stem (most of which is underground) with scale-like, membranous leaves that in reality do not function as such. Its inflorescence grows to 15–30 cm long with many minute scarlet flowers, which may be male, female or hermaphrodite in some cases.
The Maltese mushroom was already known to both Arabs and Chinese people from the early Middle Ages period. Not only it has been known and collected as survival food in times of famine but it was also known for a wide range of medicinal properties and thus used to treat a variety of symptoms and disorders.
The Latin term Cynomorium comes from dodder in Greek “kynomorion”, and the latin word coccineum is due to its vivid scarlet color.
Photo credit: ©Ori Fragman Sapir (Wadi Malha, Jerusalem, Israel)