CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Pholisma sonorae

Kathy Rice

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CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Pholisma sonorae

Common Name: 
sand food
(Torr. ex Gray) Yatskievych
Growth Habit: 
CPC Number: 


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Pholisma sonoraeenlarge
Photographer: Kathy Rice

Pholisma sonorae is Fully Sponsored
Primary custodian for this plant in the CPC National Collection of Endangered Plants is: 
Kathleen C. Rice contributed to this Plant Profile.

Pholisma sonorae

Pholisma sonorae is an obscure, parasitic plant with extremely strange attributes. The plants are gray and mushroom-shaped, and their height depends on the degree to which blowing sand covers the scaly stem (Armstrong 1980a). This succulent stem extends 1-2 m below the sand, and is attached to roots of nearby host plants (Armstrong 1980a). The scales on the stem are actually modified leaves.

Pholisma appears to be perennial (Yatskievych 1985), dying back to undifferentiated tissue at the infection site on the host plant every year. Incredibly, host plants do not appear to be depleted by Pholisma infestation, and Pholisma plants have been unearthed and weighed, with the weights exceeding those of host plants. Some of the host plant species include Tiquilia plicata, Psorothamnus emoryi, Ambrosia dumosa, and Pluchea sericea (Armstrong 1908a, 1980b).

There has been speculation as to whether Pholisma absorbs water independently from host plants, but this has been discounted as Pholisma has no root hairs. Instead, water is probably absorbed through the many stomata on the scale-like leaves (Yatskievych 1985). This water taken directly from the sand can then move into the host plant during times of drought stress. Thus, the relationship between Pholisma and the host plant is not parasitic in the strictest sense.

The inflorescences form the 'cap' of the mushroom-like plant, bearing numerous purple flowers arranged in a ring toward the outer edge of the cap. Each flower is surrounded by a hairy calyx, and the masses together calyces give the inflorescence a gray-white fuzzy appearance, while protecting plants from sun and heat (Copeland 1935). Fruits are capsules having 12-20 tiny seeds, similar in size to the surrounding grains of sand. Stems of plants were historically eaten raw or roasted by native American tribes (Sand Papagos and Cocopas).

Distribution & Occurrence

State Range
State Range of  Pholisma sonorae
  Plants are found only in the loose shifting sand of the unstable dunes near Yuma, Arizona. Associated species include Tiquilia plicata, Eriogonum sp., and Ephedra sp. (Cothrun 1969, Felger 1980).

  The range of the species extends south into Mexico and west into the southwestern corner of California, and reportedly into Arizona. No recent plants have been located.

Number Left
  Only two populations are known from California and Mexico. A site documented by a herbarium specimen on U.S.-Mex. Hill was visited during 1998, and no plants were located. As the site is rather remote and undeveloped, it appears that dune stabilization by associated species has sufficiently altered the habitat to the extent that Pholisma sonorae can not grow there. Two years ago, Pholisma was located near a lemon grove, at a site documented by a herbarium specimen made by Jepson. South of the U.S.-Mexican border, far more sand dune habitat can be found, but the status of the plants is unknown for that area.


Global Rank:  
Guide to Global Ranks
Federal Status:  
Guide to Federal Status
Recovery Plan:  

State/Area Protection
  State/Area Rank Status Date  
  Arizona S1 8/1/2002  
  California S? 6/21/1989  
  Mexico *FR83 1/6/1992  
  Sonora S2 8/29/1991  

Conservation, Ecology & Research

Ecological Relationships
  Host plant species include the following: Tiquilia plicata, Eriogonum deserticola, Ambrosia dumosa, Pluchea sericea and Tiquilia palmeri (Cothrun 1969). Interestingly, both Pholisma and the host plants appear robust and healthy even during severe drought.
There is a degree of speculation that the seeds are stimulated to emerge from dormancy by secretions from roots of host plants.

  Current threats to Pholisma include development (conversion of dune habitat to housing and agricultural land), and off-road vehicle use. The Imperial and Algodones dunes are located primarily on BLM lands, and although a small section of habitat has been set aside in California, restricting off-road vehicle use, the majority of the land is open to the public. The nature of the off-road vehicle problem is two-fold, with both host plants destroyed, along with Pholisma growing close to recreational sites.

Garden staff visits such sites annually to get an idea of the degree of damage. At one exit just off the highway where Pholisma were relatively frequent three years ago, few plants could be found, and the area was denuded of host plants also. Fragments of stems of Tiquilia and Eriogonum lay on the sand, broken by those driving on them.

In Arizona, plants are extremely rare, almost to the point of extirpation, due to expansion of the city of Yuma, and conversion to agriculture. The sand dune habitat is extremely limited within the boundaries of the state of Arizona. A reported occurrence near the Mexican border, on the Barry Goldwater bombing range was not relocated due to natural stabilization of the dunes at the site.

Current Research Summary
  Desert Botanical Garden is currently processing seeds by hand. Collected seeds from the 1998 lot have been hand-cleaned by volunteers and counted using an analytical balance. A small mass containing hundreds of seeds were sent to Dr. Valerie Pence at Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Seeds had been sent previously in 1987, but they had been previously frozen for an undetermined amount of time. Dr. Pence conducted tetrazolium tests on the 1987 seeds and determined that they were non-viable. Information from G. Yatskievych (pers. com., 1993) about the nature of the undifferentiated embryo, and oily endosperm led Dr. Pence to believe that freezing may have permanently damaged the seeds.

Germination experiments at the Garden using rootbound host plants were also conducted on Pholisma in 1993, but no seed germinated. A dissertation on Ammobroma sonorae germination requirements by Cothrun (1969) concluded that all known and experimental methods used to germinate seed of any plant were attempted, and no germination occurred. Seeds were recollected in 2000, and are still being cleaned.

There has been a recent unverified report that seeds have been germinated in vitro.

Alan Smith studied the phylogenetic relationship of Pholisma spp. using molecular data generated from field-collected specimens. The resulting analysis indicates that Lennoaceae is closely related to Boraginacese.

Current Management Summary
  Within the U.S boundaries, management for conservation of Pholisma sonorae is occurring in California on BLM land designated as off-limits to ATV recreational use. Elsewhere, the species is not protected.

Research Management Needs
  Management needs are incredibly challenging, as dunes must remain unstabilized in order for Pholisma to persist. Increasing conversion of these dunes to agricultural fields, housing developments, highways, and recreational sites will hasten the extinction of Pholisma sonorae.

Ex Situ Needs
  Ex situ needs are equally as challenging as management problems. Since seeds do not germinate reliably, and no means of perpetuating them in cultivation has been found, the species does not lend itself readily to ex situ conservation. For this particular species, in situ conservation efforts are the key to perpetuation.


Books (Single Authors)

Felger, R.S. 2000. Flora of the Gran Desierto and Rio Colorado of Northwestern Mexico. University of Arizona Press.

Kartesz, J.T. 1993. Species distribution data for vascular plants of 70 geographical areas, from unpublished data files at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Kartesz, J.T. 1996. Species distribution data at state and province level for vascular plant taxa of the United States, Canada, and Greenland (accepted records), from unpublished data files at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Kuijt, Job. 1969. The Biology of Parasitic Flowering Plants. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Munz, P.A.; Keck, D.D. 1959. A California flora. Berkeley, CA: Univ. California Press. 1681p.

Skinner, M.W.; Pavlik, B.M. 1997. Inventory of rare and endangered vascular plants of California: Electronic Inventory Update of 1994, 5th edition. Sacramento: California Native Plant Society.

Smith, J.P.; Berg, K. 1988. California native plant society's inventory of rare and endangered vascular plants of California. Sacramento: California Native Plant Society. 168p.

Books (Sections)

Kartesz, J.T. 1999. A synonymized checklist of the vascular flora of the U.S., Canada, and Greenland. In: Kartesz, J.T.; Meacham, C.A., editors. Synthesis of the North American Flora, Version 1.0. North Carolina Botanical Garden. Chapel Hill, NC.

Books (Edited Volumes)

James C. Hickman, Editor. 1993 The Jepson manual: Higher plants of California. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1400p.

Conference Proceedings

Gray, A.B. Letter Addressed to Dr. John Torey, on the Ammobroma sonorae. Proceedings of The American Association for the Advancement of Science; Letter written from New York on October 20th,; Providence, RI. 1855. Joseph Lovering: G.P. Putnam & Co.

Electronic Sources

(2000). Center for Plant Conservation's National Living Collection--Profiles. Desert Botanical Garden. http://www.dbg.org/Collections/cpc.html. Accessed: 2002.

Dice, J.C.; Sebasta, D. (1999). Rare and endangered plants of the Algodones Dunes. Outdoor California: March-April 1999. http://www.glamisonline.org/piersons_milkvetch/plantarticle.htm. Accessed: 2002.

Journal Articles

Armstrong, W.P. 1980. More About Sand Food. Fremontia. 8, 2: 30-31.

Armstrong, W.P. 1980. Sand Food: A Strange Plant of the Algodones Dunes. Fremontia. 7, 4: 3-9.

Copeland, H.F. 1935. The structure of the flower of Pholisma arenarium. American Journal of Botany. 22: 366-383.

Dressler, R.L.; Kuijt, J. 1968. A Second Species of Ammobroma (Lennoaceae) in Sinaloa, Mexico. Madro˝o. 19: 179-182.

Felger, R.S. 1980. Vegetation and Flora of the Gran Desierto, Sonora, Mexico. Desert Plants. 2, 2: 87-114.

Gray, A.B. 1855. On Ammobroma sonorae. Proc. Amer. Assoc. Adv. Sci. 9: 233-236.

Kuijt, J. 1967. Parasitism in Pholisma (Lennoaceae). II. Anatomical aspects. Canadian Journal of Botany. 45: 1155-1162.

Nabhan, G. 1980. Ammobroma sonorae, An Endangered Parasitic Plant in Extremely Arid North America. Desert Plants. 2, 3: 188-196.

Rice, K. 2000. North America's Deserts: Treasure Troves of Endemism. World Conservation.

Thackery, F.A. 1953. Sand Food of the Papagos. Desert Magazine. 16: 22-24.

USFWS. 1976. Proposed Endangered Status for 1700 U.S. Plants. Federal Register. 41: 24523-24572.

Wiesenborn, W.D. 2003. Insects on Pholisma sonorae (Lennoaceae) flowers and their conspecific pollen loads. Madrono. 50: 110-114.

Yatskievich, G. 1985. Notes on the Biology of the Lennoaceae. Cactus and Succulent Journal (U.S.). 57: 73-79.

Yatskievtych, G.; Zavada, M. 1984. Pollen morphology of Lennoaceae. Pollen et Spores. 26, 1: 19-30.

Yatskievych, G.; Mason, C.T., Jr. 1986. A revision of the Lennoaceae. Systematic Botany. 11, 4: 531-548.


BLM. 2000. Monitoring of Special Status Plants in the Algodones Dunes, Imperial County, California (Results of 1998 Monitoring and Comparison with the Data from WESTECĂs 1977 Monitoring Study). Sacramento, CA: Bureau of Land Management, California State Office. p.39.

BLM. 2001. Monitoring of Special Status Plants in the Algodones Dunes, Imperial County, California (1977, 1998, 1999, and 2000). Sacramento, CA: Bureau of Land Management, California State Office. p.65.

Gray, A.B. 1856. Report of Colonel Gray to the Texas Western Railroad Company. Cincinatti:


Cothrun, D.J. 1969. Some aspects of the Germination and Attachment of Ammobroma sonorae, a Root Parasite of Desert Shrubs. [Ph.D. Thesis]: Oklahoma State University. 79p.

  This profile was updated on 3/4/2010
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