Parasitic plants are less affected by resource constraints than other plants and most exhibit broad host tolerances, occupy large distributional ranges, and produce high numbers of propagules. Yet, parasitic plants are characteristically rare in undisturbed habitats, and patterns of distribution within host populations are often highly nonuniform. Previous work on root and shoot parasites has identified strict germination requirements for many species but, while explaining host ranges and site'microsite preferences for particular species, this cannot account for the highly clumped spatial structure of many parasitic plant populations. Other research has examined the role of seed vectors, but in most systems studied, dispersers are not limiting and their dietary breadth, substrate use, habitat preferences, and distributional ranges exceed the extent of the parasitic plant. Here, I propose the 'host-quality hypothesis,' suggesting that variation in the quality of potential hosts can account for nonrandom occurrence patterns of parasitic plants in many systems. 'Quality' can relate to access to water, nutrients, or other resources that are generally limiting to hosts, whereby parasites are more likely to establish and survive on hosts with greater access (i.e., higher quality from the parasite's perspective). Rather than supplanting germination requirements operating at the individual host plant scale or disperser behaviour operating at the landscape scale, this resource-based hypothesis applies at stand and population scales, explaining why some individuals within a stand or population are infected, while other apparently similar hosts are not susceptible. This hypothesis is explored using case studies on root and shoot hemiparasites, and is consistent with a diverse array of findings from a range of temperate and arid systems.