The Mystery of the Ghost Plant

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As houseplants enjoy a resurgence in our culture, untold numbers of novice and expert growers alike will have undoubtedly tried their luck at a succulent or two. Succulent, of course, is not a taxonomic division, but rather a way of describing the anatomy of myriad plants adapted to harsh, dry environments around the world. One of the most common succulents in the trade is the ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense).

I would bet that, if you are reading this and you grow houseplants, you have probably grown a ghost plant at one point or another. They are easy to grow and will propagate a whole new plant from only a single leaf. Despite its worldwide popularity, the ghost plant is shrouded in mystery and confusion. To date, we know next to nothing about its ecology. Much of this stems from poor record keeping and the fact that we have no idea exactly where this species originated.

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That's right, we do not know the location of its native habitat. Records indicate that the first plants to find their way into human hands were imported into New York in 1904. Apparently, they were growing as "weeds" at the base of some South American cacti. Plants were lucky enough to wind up in the hands of competent botanists and the species has ended up with the name Graptopetalum paraguayense. The specific epithet "paraguayense" was an indication of much confusion to come as it was thought that the ghost plant originated in Paraguay.

Time has barely improved our knowledge. Considering many of its relatives hail from Mexico, it gradually became more apparent that South America could not claim this species as its own. Luck changed only relatively recently with the discovery of a population of a unique color variant of the ghost plant on a single mountain in northeastern Mexico. A thorough search of the area did not reveal any plants that resemble the plant so many of us know and love. It has been suggested that the original population from which the type species was described is probably growing atop an isolated mountain peak somewhere nearby in the Chihuahuan Desert.

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Despite all of the mystery surrounding this species, we can nonetheless elucidate some aspects about its biology by observing plants in cultivation. It goes without saying that the ghost plant is a species of dry, nutrient-poor habitats. Its succulence and tolerance of a wide array of soil conditions is a testament to its hardy disposition. Also, if plants are grown in full sun, they develop a bluish, waxy coating on their leaves. This is likely a form of sunscreen that the plant produces to protect it from sun scorch. As such, one can assume that its native habitat is quite sunny, though its ability to tolerate shade suggests it likely shares its habitat with shrubby vegetation as well. Given enough time and proper care, ghost plants will produce sprays of erect, 5 pointed flowers. It is not known who might pollinate them in the wild.

It is always interesting to me that a plant can be so well known to growers while at the same time being a complete mystery in every other way. A search of the literature shows that most of the scientific attention given to the ghost plant centers on potentially useful compounds that can be extracted from its tissues. Such is the case for far too many plant species, both known and unknown alike. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, some intrepid botanist will at last scramble up the right mountain and rediscover the original habitat of this wonderful plant. Until then, I hope this small introduction provides you with a new found appreciation for this wonderfully adaptable houseplant.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

 

The Mighty Saguaro Cactus

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Where does one begin with a plant like the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)? It is recognized the world over for its iconic appearance yet its native range is disproportionately small compared to its popularity. It is easily one of the most spectacular plants I have ever encountered and I will never forget the sound the wind makes as it blows over its spiny pleated trunk. It would be impossible to sum up our collective knowledge of this species in one article, however, I feel that some form of an introduction is necessary. Today I want to honor this icon of the Sonoran Desert.

The saguaro is the only member of the genus Carnegiea, which is part of a subtribe of cacti characterized by their columnar appearance. Despite its unique taxonomic affinity, the evolutionary origins of this cactus remains a bit of a mystery. Though it is undoubtedly related to other columnar cacti of the Americas, a proper family tree seems to be just out of our reach. Due to lots of convergent and parallel evolution as well as conflicts between genealogies and species histories, we still aren't sure of its evolutionary origins. What we do know about this species on a genetic level is nonetheless quite interesting. For instance the saguaro has one of the smallest chloroplast genomes of any non-parasitic plant and we aren’t exactly sure why this is the case.

Saguaro are long lived cacti. Estimating age of a cactus can be rather tricky considering that they don’t produce annual growth rings. This is where long term monitoring projects have come in handy. By observing hundreds of saguaro throughout the Sonoran Desert, experts believe that saguaro can regularly reach ages of 150 to 170 years and some individuals may be able to live for more than 200 years. Amazingly, it is thought that saguaro will not begin to grow their characteristic arms until they reach somewhere around 50 to 100 years of age. That being said, some saguaro never bother growing arms. It all depends on where the conditions they experience throughout their lifetime.

Growth for a saguaro depends on where they are rooted. Under favorable conditions, a saguaro can grow to heights of 50 feet or more, with the world record holder clocking in at a whopping 78 feet in height. Such growth becomes all the more impressive when you realize just how agonizingly slow the process can be. Studies have shown that juvenile saguaro only put on about 1.5 inches of growth in their first eight years of life.

Despite preconceived notions about the hardy nature of most cacti, saguaro have proven to be rather specific in their needs. They are limited in their growth and distribution by the availability of water and warm temperatures. Saguaro, especially young individuals, cannot tolerate periods of prolonged frost. Additionally, germination and seedling survival occur most frequently only during the wettest years. In fact, one study showed that successful years for reproduction in these beloved cacti were tied to volcanic eruptions that cooled the climate just enough to allow the young saguaro to become established.

Outside of volcanic eruptions, saguaro appear to have friends in the surrounding vegetation. Studies have shown that saguaro seedlings seem to do best when growing under the shade of trees like the palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), ironwood (Olneya tesota), and mesquite (Prosopis velutina). The microclimates produced by these trees are much more favorable for saguaro growth than are open desert conditions. In essence, these trees serve as nurseries for young saguaro until they are large enough to handle more exposed conditions. Their nursery habits are not mutually beneficial however as research suggests that saguaro eventually compete with the trees that once protected them for precious resources like nutrients and water.

 Saguaros outgrowing their palo verde nurse tree. 

Saguaros outgrowing their palo verde nurse tree. 

At roughly 35 years of age, a saguaro will begin to flower. Flowers are small compared to the size of the cactus but they are abundant. Most flowers are produced at the apex of the cactus and it is thought that the growth of saguaro arms is largely a way of increasing the reproductive potential of large individuals. The flowers are cream colored and night scented. They open in the evening but will stay open and continue to produce nectar well into the morning hours.

Though a wide variety of animals will visit these flowers, the main pollinators are bees during the day and lesser long-nosed bats at night. Interestingly, it has been found that certain amino acids within the nectar of the saguaro can actually help female bats sustain lactation while raising their young, making them a valuable food source for these flying mammals. Catering to such a broad spectrum of potential pollinators is thought to have evolved as a means of increasing seed set. Each saguaro ovary contains many ovules and the more pollen that makes it onto the stigma, the more seeds will be produced.

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 A lesser long-nosed bat pollinates a saguaro bloom.

A lesser long-nosed bat pollinates a saguaro bloom.

Due to their size and abundance, it is easy to understand why the saguaro is such an ecologically important species in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. In essence, they function similar to trees in that they serve as vital sources of shelter and food for myriad desert animals. Woodpeckers, especially the gila and the gilded flicker, regularly hollow out and build nests in saguaro trunks. These hollows are subsequently used by many different bird, mammal, and reptile species. The flowers and fruits are important sources of food for wildlife.

 Gila woodpecker with its nesting hole.

Gila woodpecker with its nesting hole.

 Gila woodpecker holes become homes for other birds like owls. 

Gila woodpecker holes become homes for other birds like owls. 

 On rare occasions, woodpecker holes can even become home to other cacti!

On rare occasions, woodpecker holes can even become home to other cacti!

I sincerely hope that this brief introduction does at least some justice to the wonderful organism that is the saguaro cactus. The Sonoran Desert would be a shell of an ecosystem without its presence. What’s more, it has played a significant role in the culture of this region for millennia. Though it appears quite numerous on the landscape, the long-term status of the saguaro is cause for concern. Numerous declines have been reported throughout its range. With its slow growth rates and infrequent recruitment events, the saguaro can be quite sensitive to rapid changes in its environment. Luckily it has received special protection laws throughout its US range.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]


Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] 

A Surprising Realization About Leaf Windows

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I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on a Lithops. These odd little succulents are truly marvels of evolution. The so-called "living stones" really do earn their name as most are exquisitely camouflaged to match the gravelly soils in which they grow. If bizarre color patterns weren't enough, Lithops, as well as many other succulents, live their lives almost completely buried under the soil. All one ever really sees is the very tip of their succulent leaves and the occasional flower.

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It is the tips of those leaves that make people swoon. Lithops belong to a hodgepodge mix of succulent genera and families that produce windowed leaves. Aside from their striking patterns, the tips of their leaves are made up of layers of translucent cells, which allow light to penetrate into the interior of the leaf where the actual photosynthetic machinery is housed. Their semi-translucent leaves, coupled with their nearly subterranean habit, have led to the assumption that the leaf windows allow the plants to continue photosynthesis all the while being mostly buried. Despite the popularity of this assumption, few tests had been performed to see whether or not the windows function as we think. All of that changed back in the year 2000.

As hinted at above, a variety of succulent plants have converged on a similar leaf morphology. This is where things get a bit strange. Not all plants that exhibit the leaf window trait find themselves buried in the soil. Others, such as Peperomia graveolens for example, produce the photosynthetic tissues well above the soil. Examples like this led at least some researchers to second guess the common assumption of windows increasing photosynthesis and the resulting investigations were surprising to say the least. 

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Peperomia graveolens

A duo of researchers decided to test the assumption that leaf windows increase photosynthesis by channeling light directly to the photosynthetic machinery inside. The researchers used tape to cover the leaf windows of a variety of succulent plant species. When they compared photosynthetic rates between the two groups, not a single difference was detected. Plants who had their leaves covered photosynthesized the same amount as plants with uncovered leaves. These data were quite shocking. Because they tested this assumption across a variety of plant species, the results suggested that the function of windowed leaves isn't as straight forward as we thought. These findings raised more questions than they solved.

Subsequent experiments only served to reinforce the original findings. What's more, some even showed that plants with covered windows actually photosynthesized more than plants with uncovered windows. It seems that windowed leaves function in a completely opposite manner than the popular assumption. The key to this patterns may lie in heat exchange. When the researchers took the temperature of the interior of the leaves in each group, they found that internal leaf temperatures were significantly higher in the uncovered group and this has important implications for photosynthesis for these species.

 Fenestraria rhopalophylla

Fenestraria rhopalophylla

High leaf temperatures can be extremely damaging to photosynthetic proteins. If too much light filters through, leaf temperatures can actually hit damaging levels. This is one reason that many of these plant species have adopted this bizarre semi-subterranean habit. Plants that experienced such high temperatures throughout the course of a day had permanent damage done to their photosystems. This led to a reduction of fitness over time. Such lethal temperature spikes did not happen to leaves that had been covered.

  Haworthia truncata

Haworthia truncata

If you're anything like me, at this point you must be questioning the role of the leaf windows entirely. Why would they be there if they may actually hurt the plants in the long run? Well, this is where knowing something about the habitat of each species comes into play. Not all leaf windows are created equal. The patterns of their windows vary quite a bit depending on where the plants evolved. In 2012, a paper was published that looked at the patterns of Lithops leaf windows in relation to their place of origin. Not all Lithops grow in the same conditions and various species hail from regions with vastly different climates.

What the paper was able to demonstrate was that Lithops native to regions that experience more acerage annual rainfall have much larger window areas on their leaves than Lithops native to drier regions. Again, the underpinnings of this discovery nonetheless have to do with light availability. Wetter areas experience more cloud cover than drier areas so Lithops growing where its cloudy have to cope with a lot less sun than their more xeric-growing cousins. As such, having a larger window allows more diffuse light into the leaf for photosynthesis without having to worry about the damaging temperatures.

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The reverse is true for Lithops from drier climates. They have smaller leaf windows because they experience more days with direct sun. These species tended to have much smaller windows, which reduced the amount of sunlight entering the leaf. This serves to keep internal leaf temperatures within a much safer range, thus protecting the delicate proteins inside. As it turns out, leaf windows seem to represent a trade-off between photosynthesis and overheating. What's more, some window-leaved species seem to be evolving away from the light transmitting function of their cousins living in shadier conditions. If anything, this serves as a reminder that simply because something seems obvious, that doesn't mean its always true. Stay curious, my friends!

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

A Truly Bizarre Cactus From The Amazon

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When we think of cacti, we tend to think of dry deserts and sandy soils. Few of us would ever jump to the trunk of a tree, nestled in a humid rainforest, and experiencing periodic inundation. Yet, such a habitat is the hallmark of one of the world's most unique species of cactus - Selenicereus witii. In more ways than one, this species is truly aberrant.

Whereas epiphytic cacti aren't novel, the habits of S. witii surely push the limits of what we know about the entire cactus family. Despite having been discovered in 1899, little attention has been paid to this epiphytic cactus. What we do know comes from scant herbarium records and careful observation by a small handful of botanists.

S. witii is endemic to a region of central Amazonia and only grows in Igapó, or seasonally flooded, blackwater forests. It makes its living on the trunks of trees and its entire morphology seems particularly adapted to such a harsh lifestyle. Unlike most cacti, S. witii doesn't seem to bother with water storage. Instead, its stems grow completely appressed to the trunks of trees. Roots emerge from near the spine-bearing areoles and these help to anchor it in place. 

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Because they are often exposed to bright sunlight, the stems produce high amounts of chemical pigments called betalains. These act as sun block, protecting the sensitive photosynthetic machinery from too much radiation. These pigments also give the plant a deep red or purple color that really stands out against the trunks of trees. 

Like all members of this genus, S. witii produces absolutely stunning flowers. However, to see them, your best bet is to venture out at night. Flowers usually begin to open just after sundown and will be closed by morning. And my, what flowers they are! Individual blooms can be upwards of 27 cm long and 12.5 cm wide (10 in by 5 in)! They are also said to produce an intense fragrance. Much of their incredible length is a nectar tube that seems to be catered to a specific group of sphinx moths, whose proboscis is long enough to reach the nectar at the bottom.

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The seeds of S. witii are just as aberrant as the rest of the cactus. They are rather large and shaped like a kidney. Cross sections reveal that most of their size is devoted to hollow air chambers. Indeed, the seeds float like tiny pieces of cork when placed in water. This is likely an adaptation resulting from their preferred habitat.

As mentioned above, S. witii has only been found growing in seasonally flooded forests. What's more, plants only occur on the trunks of large trees right at the high water line. In fact, the highly appressed nature of its stems seems to suggest that this species can withstand periodic submergence in fast flowing water. The seeds must also cope with flooding and it is likely that their buoyant nature aids in seed dispersal during these periods. 

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All in all, this is one weird cactus. Although it isn't alone in its tropical epiphytic habit, it certainly takes the cake for being one of the most derived. Aside from a few publications, little attention has been given to this oddball. It would appear that the seasonal flooding of its preferred habitat has simply chased this cactus up into the trees, the environmental demands of which coaxed out strange but ingenious adaptations from its genome. The good news is that where it does occur, S. witii seems to grow in high numbers.

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1]

The Curly-Whirly Plants of South Africa

In a region of South Africa traditionally referred to as Namaqualand there exists a guild of plants that exhibit a strange pattern in their growth habits. These plants hail from at least eight different monocot families as well as the family Oxalidaceae. They are all geophytes, meaning they live out the driest months of the year as dormant, bulb-like structure underground. However, this is not the only feature that unites them.

A walk through this region during the growing season would reveal that members of this guild all produce leaves that at least one author has described as "curly-whirly." To the casual observer it would seem that they had left the natural expanse of the desert flora and entered into the garden of someone with very particular tastes.

What these plants have managed to do is to converge on a morphological strategy that allows them to take full advantage of their unique geographical location. The region along the coastal belt of Namibia is famous for being a "fog desert." Despite receiving very little rain, humid air blowing in from the southwestern Atlantic runs into colder air blowing down from the north and condenses, carrying fog inland. This produces copious amounts of dew.

Normally dew would be unavailable to most plants. It simply doesn't penetrate the soil enough to be useful for roots. This is where those curly-whirly leaves come in. Researchers have discovered that this leaf anatomy is specifically adapted for capturing and concentrating fog and dew. This has the effect of significantly improving their water budget in this otherwise arid region. What's more, the advantages are additive.

The most obvious advantage has to do with surface area. Curled leaves increase the amount of edge a leaf has. This provides ample area for capturing fog and dew. Also, by curling up, the leaves are able to reduce the overall size of the leaf exposed to the air, which reduces the amount of transpiration stress these plants encounter in their hot desert environment. Another advantage is direct absorption. Although no specific organs exist for absorbing water, the leaves of most of these species are nonetheless capable of absorbing considerable amounts.

Finally, each curled leaf acts like a mini gutter, channeling water to the base of the plant. Many of these plants have surprisingly shallow root zones. The lack of a deep taproot may seem odd until one considers the fact that dew dripping down from the leaves above doesn't penetrate too deeply into the soil. These roots are sometimes referred to as "dew roots."

I don't know about you but this may be one of the coolest plant guilds I have ever heard about. This is such a wonderfully clear example of just how strong of a selective pressure the combination of geography and climate can be. What's more, this is not the only region in the world where drought-tolerant plants have converged on this curly strategy. Similar guilds exist in other arid regions of Africa, as well as in Turkey, Australia, and Asia.

Tiger's Jaw

 

Behold the ominous beauty of the genus Faucaria. These succulent herbs in the family Aizoaceae are native to South Africa and are known commonly as tiger's jaws. The first time I encountered one of these plants, I was a little hesitant to get too close. Despite their appearance, however, they are rather tame. What looks like a sturdy defense actually has more to do with water.

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Faucaria are denizens of the dry. Their stubby, succulent leaves act as water storage devices that allow the plant to go some time without water. As new leaves are produced, they emerge in pairs with their serrated edges interlocking like teeth. Once mature, the edges separate and the pair of leaves open up like a carnivorous maw.

The "teeth" of these "jaws" are a unique adaptation for acquiring extra water. Because it rains infrequently, the plant does its best to take advantage of moisture in the air. The teeth act as condensation points, mopping up dew and fog and directing it towards the roots. In this way, Fucaria are able to maintain themselves even in the absence of rain.

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And maintain themselves they do! Like many other members of the family, Faucaria produce unexpectedly large flowers for their size. The blooms erupt from the middle of each pair of leaves, almost as if they were being regurgitated. Seeing a mature population in full bloom is an experience you won't soon forget. 

Photo Credit: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1]

The Rosulate Violas

The rosulate violas of South America are amazing. Adapted to the harsh, windy environment provided by the mountains of Chile and Patagonia, these little plants are as tough as they are beautiful!

Photo Credit: Dick Culbert (http://bit.ly/1iv5WXr), Omskflower.ru, The Ecological and Environmental Change Research Group (http://bit.ly/1nlbknN), Christian Ostrosky (http://bit.ly/1jEslX7), Pato Novoa (http://bit.ly/SDQoMi , http://bit.ly/1jjT1Nh)