False Toad Flax

Geocaulon lividum (Richards.) Fern.

Geocaulon lividum with fruit.
Lorraine Anderson

Dicotyledoneae (Dicots)
Santalaceae (Sandalwood Family)
State Protection
Listed as Endangered by New York State: in imminent danger of extirpation in New York. For animals, taking, importation, transportation, or possession is prohibited, except under license or permit. For plants, removal or damage without the consent of the landowner is prohibited.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Critically Imperiled in New York - Especially vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to extreme rarity or other factors; typically 5 or fewer populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, very few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or very steep declines.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Secure globally - Common in the world; widespread and abundant (but may be rare in some parts of its range).


Did you know?

This plant is part of the mostly tropical sandalwood family. The genus name Geocaulon is from the greek ge, earth, and caulos, stalk and is in reference to the long slightly subterranean but scarcely modified stems (Fernald 1970). Geocaulon species are hemi-parasites: that is, although they do produce their own food using chlorophyll like other green plants , they also obtain some nutrients by penetrating the roots of other plants.

State Ranking Justification

There are 8 known and about 4 historical (not seen within 20 years) populations in New York State. Two of the historical populations were searched for without success, but more survey work is needed at these sites before they can be determined extirpated. All of the populations are limited to the highest mountains in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks and most are quite small. Some of the populations are threatened by trampling by hiker traffic. This species is at the edge of its range in New York, where the cool alpine habita it requires is very limited in distribution.

Short-term Trends

Most of the populations in New York were first seen within the past 20 years. This most likely is a result of these populations being overlooked due to the fact that this species is fairly inconspicuous and often grows in relatively small numbers. Most populations have under 100 individuals but there is no evidence that this is a result of declining populations.

Long-term Trends

No populations are known to have become extirpated in the past 100 or so years. There are two populations that were searched for recently without success. These populations have not been seen in the past 20+ years but further survey work is needed before these populations can be deemed extirpated.

Conservation and Management


Trampling by hiker traffic is a threat to some of the populations.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

The Summit Steward program which works to inform hikers of the fragile nature of alpine plants is a critical program which is helping to reduce trampling of alpine vegetation. This program and other efforts designed to reduce trampling of alpine meadows are needed.

Research Needs

Consistent and clear estimates of population size are needed for all extant populations. The known populations of this species are small enough that counting of all stems is very possible. Populations which have not been seen recently need to be surveyed.



In New York, this species occurs in alpine meadows, under dwarfed trees in alpine and subalpine habitats, openings in krummholz, and high elevation bogs. It is sometimes found growing in mats of various ericaceous shrubs and it prefers wet, mossy microsites (New York Natural Heritage Program 2007). In Maine, it grows in Sphagnum bogs, coniferous woods, and alpine areas (Haines and Vining 1998). Sphagnum bogs and wet coniferous woods (Gleason and Cronquist 1991). Moss or damp humus (Fernald 1970).

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Alpine krummholz (guide)
    A dwarf woodland dominated by balsam fir that occurs at or near the summits of the high peaks of the Adirondacks.
  • Dwarf shrub bog* (guide)
    A wetland usually fed by rainwater or mineral-poor groundwater and dominated by short, evergreen shrubs and peat mosses. The surface of the peatland is usually hummocky, with shrubs more common on the hummocks and peat moss throughout. The water in the bog is usually nutrient-poor and acidic.
  • Open alpine community (guide)
    An open community consisting of a mosaic of sedge/dwarf shrub meadows, dwarf heath shrublands, small boggy depressions, and exposed bedrock covered with lichens and mosses. The open alpine community occurs above timberline (about 4,900 ft or 1,620 m) on the higher mountain summits and exposed ledges of the Adirondacks. The flora includes arctic-alpine species that are restricted (in New York) to these areas, as well as boreal species that occur in forests and bogs at lower elevations. The soils are thin and organic, primarily composed of peat derived from peat mosses (Sphagnum spp.) or black muck. The soils are often saturated because they can be recharged by atmospheric moisture.

* probable association but not confirmed.

Associated Species

  • Chamaedaphne calyculata (leatherleaf)
  • Diapensia lapponica var. lapponica
  • Empetrum nigrum ssp. hermaphroditum
  • Kalmia angustifolia
  • Kalmia polifolia (bog laurel)
  • Trichophorum caespitosum
  • Vaccinium boreale (northern lowbush blueberry)
  • Vaccinium oxycoccos (small cranberry)
  • Vaccinium uliginosum (bog bilberry)


New York State Distribution

In New York, Geocaulon lividum is restricted to some of the highest mountains in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks. All the populations are within about 14 air miles from each other.

Global Distribution

This species occurs from Labrador to Alaska south to Maine, the mountains of northern New England and New York, Michigan, Minnesota, and southern British Columbia (Fernald 1970).

Identification Comments

General Description

Purple comandra is a small herbaceous plant. It has creeping roots and erect simple stems that grow up to about one foot tall. The .4 - 1.6 inch long leaves are alternate on the stems. The flowers occur in clusters of 2-4 from axils of the leaves. They lack true petals but have a 5-lobed calyx with the lobes bronze to greenish. Only the central flower of a cluster has female reproductive parts and is able to produce fruits. The other flowers have only male reproductive parts. The beautiful orange to scarlet fruits are round, juicy, and 6-10 mm in diameter (Fernald 1970, Gleason and Cronquist 1991).

Identifying Characteristics

Geocaulon lividum often occurs in relatively small patches with the stems widely spaced. The stems are 7-30 cm tall. The creeping roots are smooth, filiform, and brown or reddish. The leaves are distinctive. They are 1-4 cm long, rounded at the apex, elliptic to oblong or narrowly ovate, and tinged or completely purplish to purplish-brown. The flowers occur in solitary clusters of 2-4 from the axils of the leaves in the middle of the stems. Only the central flower is perfect and develops into a scarlet fleshy fruit on a peduncle 1-2 cm long. These fruits are somewhat hidden by the leaves (Fernald 1970).

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

Identification of this species is possible with only vegetative characteristics but flowers or fruits are extremely useful and essentially needed for identification of dried specimens. In addition, the orange to scarlet fruits, although somewhat hidden by the leaves, can help greatly in the location of this species.

Similar Species

Geocaulon lividum is a very distinct plant and is not easily confused with any other species in New York's alpine habitats. Its flowers and to some degree fruits are somewhat inconspicuous. Individual stems often are without flowers. Therefore, as a simple-stemmed small herb that often grows singly or only in small groups, with stems widely spaced, it can be difficult to spot. Finding this species requires keen observation and familiarity with its vegetative characteristics.

Comandra umbellata, bastard-toadflax, looks similar vegetatively but occurs in lowland dry forests and barrens, and has many white flowers at the top of the stem.

Best Time to See

The best time to survey for this species is when it is in fruit and it is most visible, which is from mid-July through September.

  • Flowering
  • Fruiting

The time of year you would expect to find False Toad Flax flowering and fruiting in New York.

False Toad Flax Images


False Toad Flax
Geocaulon lividum (Richards.) Fern.

  • Kingdom Plantae
    • Phylum Anthophyta
      • Class Dicotyledoneae (Dicots)
        • Order Santalales
          • Family Santalaceae (Sandalwood Family)

Additional Common Names

  • False Toadflax
  • Northern bastard toadflax
  • Northern Comandra
  • Purple Comandra


  • Comandra livida Richardson

Comments on the Classification

Fernald (1928) transferred Comandra livida to the monotypic genus Geocaulon due to many morphological differences between the two genera.

Additional Resources

Best Identification Reference

Haines, A. and T.F. Vining. 1998. Flora of Maine, A Manual for Identification of Native and Naturalized Vascular Plants of Maine. V.F.Thomas Co., Bar Harbor, Maine.

Other References

Fernald, M.L. 1928. Contributions from the gray herbarium of Harvard University, No. LXXIX. Rhodora 30: 21-30.

Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray's manual of botany. 8th edition. D. Van Nostrand, New York. 1632 pp.

Gleason, Henry A. and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York. 910 pp.

Holmgren, Noel. 1998. The Illustrated Companion to Gleason and Cronquist's Manual. Illustrations of the Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York.

Mitchell, Richard S. and Gordon C. Tucker. 1997. Revised Checklist of New York State Plants. Contributions to a Flora of New York State. Checklist IV. Bulletin No. 490. New York State Museum. Albany, NY. 400 pp.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2010. Biotics database. New York Natural Heritage Program. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Latham, NY. 96 pp. plus xi.

Weldy, T. and D. Werier. 2010. New York flora atlas. [S.M. Landry, K.N. Campbell, and L.D. Mabe (original application development), Florida Center for Community Design and Research http://www.fccdr.usf.edu/. University of South Florida http://www.usf.edu/]. New York Flora Association http://newyork.plantatlas.usf.edu/, Albany, New York

Zika, Peter F. and Jerry C. Jenkins. 1992. Contributions to the flora of the Adirondacks, New York. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 119(4): 442-445.


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: January 31, 2008

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Geocaulon lividum. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/false-toadflax/. Accessed June 23, 2024.