Flora in the Alps – Little Thieves and Parasites


At this time of year, colourful eyebrights (Euphrasia) brighten up many hiking trails in the Alps, but don’t be fooled by these cute little flowers. Eyebrights are little thieves and parasitic plants. They use their roots to steal water and nutrients from neighboring plants.

Parasitic Eyebright flower
These colourful eyebrights (Euphrasia) brighten up many hiking trails at the moment. But don’t be fooled by these cute little flowers, eyebrights are parasitic plants, stealing water and nutrients from other plants with their roots. Because eyebrights also have chlorophyll – and thus are capable of photosynthesis – they are semi-parasitic and don’t need to steal all of their food from a host. Photo by Simone van Velzen.


Despite the fact that an eyebright has green leaves – which means that the plant has green photosynthetic pigments and thus is capable of photosynthesis and can rely on itself for nutrients – it still steals water and minerals from other plants surrounding it. That’s why these small colorful plants are called semi-parasites.

Eyebrights aren’t the only semi-parasites that you can find in the Alps, because taking nutrients from neighbouring plants is a common theft. Rattlers (Rhinanthus), cow-wheats (Melampyrum) and louseworts (Pedicularis) are all examples of semi-parasitic plants growing right next to hiking trails in the Alps.

Eyebright close-up
Eyebright close-up photo by Simone van Velzen.

Some examples of semi-parasites species that you can find in the Alps are:

  • Common eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis)
  • Alpine eyebright (Euphrasia alpina)
  • Purple cow-wheat (Melampyrum nemorosum)
  • Common cow-wheat (Melampyrum pratense)
  • European yellow rattle (Rhinanthus alectorolophus)
  • Alpine bartsia (Bartsia alpina)
  • Crested lousewort (Pedicularis comosa)
  • Beaked lousewort (Pedicularis rostratospicata)
  • Verticillate lousewort (Pedicularis verticillata)
  • Leafy Lousewort (Pedicularis foliosa)
Purple cow wheat parasite plant
Purple cow wheat (Melampyrum nemorosum) – These semi-parasitic plants have beautiful little flowers that often grow in dense clusters next to the hiking trail.

Real parasites

Broomrapes (Orobanche) even go a step further. They totally lack green photosynthetic pigments and without green leaves nor chlorophyll they are unable to do any photosynthesizing. As a consequence, broomrapes depend completely on stolen nutrients from neighboring plants: they’re real parasites, maintaining a full parasitic lifestyle.

There are many different species of broomrape that you can see while hiking in the Alps – like slender broomrape (Orobanches gracilis) and light-yellow broomrape (Orobanche lutea) – and all of them reap nourishment from the roots of neighboring plants.

Help from a fungus

The birds-nest’s orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) is, just like a broomrape, a non-photosynthetic plant, but this orchid species is not a parasite! So, if it’s not photosynthesizing, nor stealing from its neighbors, how does this plant manage to feed itself? Fungus help the orchid to extract nutrients from the forest floor.

Bird's-nest orchid parasite
Bird’s-nest orchid – Perhaps not the prettiest flower, but nonetheless a very exciting find! It’s a bird’s-nest orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) and it’s not dead. It just doesn’t have any chlorophyll, which means it can’t do any photosynthesis. So how does it get its necessary nutrients? Fungi help this orchid extract nutrients from the forest floor. Such symbiotic relationships are found in every orchid species, and especially for the non-photosynthetic bird’s-nest orchid, are essential.

Every plant a story

Semi-parasite, full parasites, help from fungi and many other incredible stories: that’s why I’m so impressed with the flora in our mountains. I would love to share these stories with you on the Tour du Mont Blanc rest day Saussurea Alpine Garden tour. What are you waiting for? Book a trip on the Tour du Mont Blanc, I look forward to meeting you there!  

You may also enjoy:

Visiting the Saussurea Alpine Garden on Tour du Mont Blanc

Butterworts and Sundews – Insectivorous Plants in the Alps

Edelweiss – The Symbol of the Alps 

Spring flowers in the Alps: The extraordinary story of Anemone hepatica


Simone van Velzen

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