Lovely Lomatium

I officially learned how to botanize in the American west. Before then my skills were limited to "hey, look at the pretty flower" and then Googling my way to an answer. As such, I have a real soft spot for western botany. Despite the fact that I have not had the chance to exercise those muscles in some time, I nonetheless revisit the few groups that I do remember via the massive photo collection I built up during my tenure in Wyoming. One group I am particularly fond of are members of the genus Lomatium.

I had never really paid attention to members of the carrot family. I always associated that group with the Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) I encountered growing in ditches. In other words, I found them boring. All of that changed when I moved to Wyoming. Spring was slow to start that year. I mean really slow. I thought I had it bad in western New York where spring snow storms and freezing temperatures often delayed plant growth well into May. That year in Wyoming, the last snow storm hit on June 29th. Because of this, most of the plants we were trying to locate were biding their time underground waiting for favorable weather to kick off the growing season.

By mid June I was starving for plant life. I needed to see some greenery. That is when I first laid eyes on a Lomatium. They began appearing as tight clusters of highly dissected, rubbery leaves. Once I knew what to look for, I began finding them throughout the foothill regions where we were working. Since I was just getting familiar with the local flora, I was hard pressed to key anything out. Instead I just waited for flowers. I didn't have to wait very long. 

Soon entire hillsides were covered in little yellow umbels. They were squat plants, never growing too high. The constant winds that whipped across the terrain made sure of that. It soon became apparent that Lomatiums don't waste any time. Water is limited in these habitats and they have to make quick work of it while it is available. Another interesting thing to note is the sex of the flowers. Generally when I see a dense umbel like that, I just assumed they were hermaphroditic. In at least some Lomatium, this is actually not the case. The sex of the flowers is determined by age. 

Smaller plants tend to produce male flowers, whereas larger plants will produce hermaphrodites. This makes a lot of sense as producing only pollen requires much fewer resources than producing ovaries and eventually seeds. Needless to say, larger plants also produce the most seed and are often the driving force in population persistence and growth. The seeds themselves are quite interesting. They are winged and often quite fleshy until they dry. Wind is the predominant seed dispersal mechanism and there is no shortage of wind in sagebrush country. 

The phylogeny of this genus is quite confusing. I certainly haven't gotten my head wrapped around it. Individuals are notoriously hard to identify both physically and genetically. There is a large degree of genetic variation between plants and "new species" are still being discovered. At the same time, there is also a lot of endemism and some species like Lomatium cookii and Lomatium dissectum are of conservation concern. Aside from habitat destruction, over-grazing, and limited ranges, over-collection for herbal uses poses considerable threat to many species. 

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/1VWvMfV

http://bit.ly/1VE24MF

http://bit.ly/1WUzohQ

http://bit.ly/1qXSVS8

http://bit.ly/245NDpH

A New Species of Parasite Discovered in Japan

A new species of parasitic plant has been discovered on the Japanese island of Yakushima. A small population was found by Suetsugu Kenji during a survey of the lowland laurel forests that cover much of the island. Despite being an authority on parasitic plants of this region, Professor Suetsugu did not recognize these plants. As such, a specimen was collected for a closer look.

An in depth examination revealed that this was indeed a new species. It has been named Sciaphila yakushimensi in honor of the island on which it was discovered. It belongs to a family of plants called Triuridaceae. They are closely related to the family Alismataceae and many members of this family have foregone photosynthesis for a parasitic lifestyle.

S. yakushimensi is what we call a mycoheterotroph. It parasitizes mycorrhizal fungi, taking the nutrients it needs and giving nothing in return. The fungi themselves are getting their nutrient needs from the trees that grow in the forest. As such, S. yakushimensi could not exist without an intact forest to support its fungal host.

This is the troubling part. Only two populations of S. yakushimensi have been discovered. Its parasitic lifestyle makes it difficult to get an accurate estimation of its numbers. These plants live most of their lives underground, only appearing when it is time to flower. Because of this, researchers are already suggesting that this species be considered endangered.

Sadly, its native forest is under constant threat of logging. Much of this region remains unprotected. Since mycoheterotrophs like S. yakushimensi rely on an intact forest capable of supporting its host fungi, any disturbance that threatens the forest can spell disaster for these parasites. Far from being a detriment to the forests in which they live, parasitic plants like S. yakushimensi can serve as a very important reminder of how crucial it is to preserve entire ecosystems rather than single species.

Photo Credit: Yamashita Hiroaki

Further Reading:

https://www.tsumura.co.jp/english/kampo/plant/090/090_01.html

The World's Largest Flower

Have you ever wondered which plants produce the largest single flower in the world?

Meet Rafflesia. Well, I should say Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces flowers that are over 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter and can weigh as much as 24 lbs. (11 kg)! Rafflesia is a genus that contains roughly 28 species that hail from the jungles of southeastern Asia. What is crazy about this genus is not just the fact that it produces the largest flower in the world, but also that they are all holoparasites. They do not produce stems, leaves, or true roots. They live out their entire lives inside of a group of vines related to North America's grapes. Except for flowering, Rafflesia exists entirely as a network of mycelium-like cells inside their vine hosts.

For a long time, the taxonomic status of this plant was highly debated but recent DNA evidence puts it in the order Malpighiales. From there, things get a little funny. One recent analysis suggested that Rafflesia belonged in the family Euphorbiaceae, however, it most likely warrants its own family - Rafflesiaceae.

A view from the inside of another species of Rafflesia - Rafflesia tuan-mudae. The strangely spiked "disk" in the center is the column, which houses the reproductive organs.  Photo by Ch'ien C. Lee

A view from the inside of another species of Rafflesia - Rafflesia tuan-mudae. The strangely spiked "disk" in the center is the column, which houses the reproductive organs.

Photo by Ch'ien C. Lee

So, why produce such large flowers? Well, existing solely within a vine makes it hard to establish a large population in any given area, a difficult situation for any plants that rely on pollinators for reproduction. By growing very large and thus being able to produce a lot of "stink" (this plant is also referred to as the corpse plant), Rafflesia make sure that pollinators will come from far and wide to investigate, thus increasing their chances of cross pollinating. How this plant goes about spreading its seeds is still a mystery.

Most interesting of all, it has been discovered that there is some amount of horizontal gene transfer going on between Rafflesia and its host. Basically, Rafflesia obtains strands of DNA from the vine it lives in and uses them in its own genetic code. It is believed this incurs some fitness benefit to Rafflesia but it is yet not fully understood.

Sadly, many species within this family may be lost before we ever get a chance to get to know them better. Forests in this region are disappearing rapidly to make room for expanding populations and agriculture. What makes matters worse for the genus is that their lifestyle makes them very hard to study. It is especially difficult to obtain accurate population estimates. As more and more forest is cleared, we could be losing countless populations of these wonderful and intriguing plants. As with large mammals, it would seem that the world's largest flower is falling victim to the unending tide of human development.

Photo Credit: Tamara van Molken

and

Ch'ien C. Lee www.wildborneo.com.my/photo.phpf=cld05120647.jpg

Further Reading:

http://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pgen.1003265

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982208013432

http://legacy.earlham.edu/~givenbe/Rafflesia/rafflesia/biodiv2.htm

Screw Pines, Volcanism, and Diamonds

The association between geology and botany has always fascinated me. The closer you look, the more you can't separate the two. Rocks and minerals influence soil characteristics, which in turn influences which plant species will grow and where, which in turn influences soil properties. Take for instance the case of kimberlite.

Kimberlite is a volcanic rock whose origin is quite intense. Kimberlite is found in the form of large vertical columns, often referred to as pipes. They are the result of some seriously explosive volcanism. Intense heat and pressure builds deep within the mantle until it explodes upward, forming a column of this igneous rock. 

Over long spans of time, these pipes begin to weather and erode. This results in soil that is rich in minerals like magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous. As anyone who gardens can tell you, these are the ingredients of many fertilizers. In Africa where these sorts of pipes are well known, there is a species of plant that seems to take advantage of these conditions. 

It has been coined Pandanus candelabrum and it belongs to a group of plants called the screw pines. They aren't true pines but are instead a type of angiosperm. Now, the taxonomy of the genus Pandanus is a bit shaky. Systematics within the family as a whole has largely been based on fragmentary materials such as fruits and flowers. What's more, for much of its taxonomic history, each new collection was largely regarded as a new species. You might be asking why this is important. The answer has something to do with the kimberlite P. candelabrum grows upon. 

There is something other than explosive volcanic activity that makes kimberlite famous. It is mostly known for containing diamonds. In a 2015 paper, geologist Stephen E. Haggerty made this connection between P. candelabrum and kimberlite. As far as anyone can tell, the plant is a specialist on this soil type. As such, prospectors are now using the presence of this plant as a sort of litmus test for finding diamond deposits. This is why I think taxonomy becomes important. 

If P. candelabrum turns out not to be a unique species but rather a variation then perhaps this discovery doesn't mean much for the genus as a whole. However, if it turns out that P. candelabrum is a truly unique species then this new-found association with diamond-rich rocks may spell disaster. Mining for diamonds is a destructive process and if every population of P. candelabrum signals the potential for diamonds, then the future of this species lies in the balance of how much our species loves clear, shiny chunks of carbon. A bit unsettling if you ask me. 

Photo Credit: to.pbs.org/1NQUXqU

Further Reading:
http://econgeol.geoscienceworld.org/content/110/4/851.full

An Introduction to Cephalotus follicularis - A Strange Carnivore From Australia

In a small corner of western Australia grows one of the most unique carnivorous plants in the world. Commonly referred to as the Albany pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis is, evolutionarily speaking, distinct among the pitcher plants. It is entirely unrelated to both the Sarraceniaceae and the Nepenthaceae.

This stunning case of convergent evolution stems from similar ecological limitations. Cephalotus grows in nutrient poor areas and thus must supplement itself with insect prey. It does so by growing modified leaves that are shaped into pitchers. The lid of each pitcher serves two purposes. It keeps rain from diluting the digestive enzymes within and it also confuses insects.

A close inspection of the lid will reveal that it is full of clear spots. These spots function as windows, allowing light to penetrate and confuse insects that have landed on the trap. As they fly upwards into the light, they crash into the lid and, with a little help from physics, fall down into the trap.

The relationship of Cephalotus to other plants has been the object of much scrutiny. Though it is unique enough to warrant its own family (Cephalotaceae), its position in the greater scheme of plant taxonomy originally had it placed in Saxifragales. Genetic analysis has since moved it out of there and now places it within the order Oxalidales. What is most intriguing to me is that the closest sister lineage to this peculiar little pitcher plant are a group of trees in the family Brunelliaceae. Evolution can be funny like that.

Regardless of its relationship to other plants, Cephalotus follicularis has gained quite a bit of attention over the last few years. Its strange appearance and carnivorous habit have earned it a bit of stardom in the horticultural trade. A single specimen can fetch a hefty price tag. As a result, collecting from wild populations has caused a decline in numbers that are already hurting due to habitat destruction. Luckily they are easy to culture in captivity, which will hopefully take pressure off of them in the wild.

What's more, the loss of Cephalotus from the wild is hurting more than just the plant. A species of flightless, ant-mimicking fly requires Cephalotus pitchers to rear its young. They don't seem to mind growing up in the digestive enzymes of the pitchers and to this date, their larvae have been found living nowhere else. If you are lucky enough to grow one of these plants, share the wealth. Captive reared specimens not only take pressure off wild populations, they are also much hardier. Lets keep wild Cephalotus in the wild!

The Darth Vader Begonia

Cue the Imperial March, it is time to talk about the Darth Vader Begonia. This atramentous plant had only been known to the world since 2014. The discovery of this species (as well as two other new Begonia species) occured in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. This region is a hot spot for plant diversity and this is especially true for begonias. A combination of diverse terrain and varied microclimates have led to an explosion of speciation events resulting in endemic species found nowhere else in the world.

With its leaves so deeply green that they almost appear black and deep red flowers it's not a stretch to imagine why this begonia has been named Begonia darthvaderiana. Until 2014, no one had ever laid eyes on this species, not even the locals. It was found growing in the deep shade of a forested cliff mixed in among other shade-loving vegetation. It is likely that the dark coloration of its leaves enables it to take advantage of what little sunlight makes it down to the forest floor.

Not long after its discovery was reported, something alarming happened. The so-called Darth Vader begonia began appearing for sale online. With a price tag of $80+, this is one expensive little plant. Apparently a plant poacher from Taiwan managed to smuggle some plants out of the country. This is especially upsetting because of its extreme rarity. Despite its namesake, the force is not strong enough to protect this species from greedy collectors. If you have somehow managed to obtain one of these plants, please do everything in your power to propagate it. Plants produced in captivity take pressure off of wild populations.

This was not the only new begonia species to be named after a Star Wars character. A larger species with green and silver leaves was given the scientific name of Begonia amidalae after Queen Amidala. It too is endemic to the region. The future of these plants as well as many others hangs in the balance. A growing human population is putting pressure on the rainforests of Borneo. As more and more forest is lost to development, countless endemic species are disappearing with it. This is yet another example of why land conservation is a must. Please consider lending your support to organizations such as the Rainforest Trust. Together, we can ensure that there are wild spaces left.

CLICK HERE TO HELP LAND CONSERVATION EFFORTS IN BORNEO

Photo Credit: Che-Wei Lin, Shih-Wen Chung, & Ching-I Peng

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

The Bells of Oconee

The whole point of In Defense of Plants is to remove the human element and tell the story of plants for what they are. I find their stories to be far more interesting than any anthropocentric use they might have. However, the following tale was just far too compelling to ignore. It is a story of passion and, in the end, really encompasses the reality of the species it centers around.

Asa Gray was an eminent 19th century botanist. In 1838, Gray left America for Europe in order to examine herbarium specimens which would reveal the original sources of American flora. While in Paris, Gray was pouring over collections made by Andre Michaux when he came across a poorly preserved specimen of an unnamed plant "with a habit of Pyrola and the foliage of Galax" originating from the "High Mountains of Carolina."

For whatever reason, Gray became enamored with this small pressed plant. He knew it had to be a new species. Upon returning to America, Gray went about organizing expeditions to rediscover this odd little botanical wonder. Sadly it would be another 40 years before he would see a living specimen. 

The species in question is Shortia galacifolia, better known as Oconee bells. A member of the family Diapensiaceae, Shortia is often described as a small, spreading, evergreen sub-shrub. In early spring, each plant produces a beautiful whiteish-pink, bell shaped flower. Today, Shortia is only known from a small handful of populations growing along a couple stream banks in the Southern Appalachians. The original population that Michaux collected from now lies under 980 feet of water, lost forever by the damming of the Keowee River. 

There has been a lot of speculation over why this plant is endemic. A lot of it has to do with Shortia's germination requirements. It is a plant of disturbance, relying on things like blowdowns or minor landslides to open the canopy just enough to create the perfect microclimate. As canopies close, populations languish and disappear. Fortunately for Shortia, collections have been out-planted at a handful of botanical gardens throughout the region where they grow and persist in great numbers. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:
http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1991-51-4-asa-gray-and-his-quest-for-shortia-galacifolia.pdf

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2483507?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.jstor.org/stable/4033240?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

http://www.jstor.org/stable/23306488?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Blowout Penstemon

While living and working in Wyoming, I had the chance to meet so many amazing plant species. Many of these were quite unique to the high desert environments where we were assigned. Countless hours were spent searching large swaths of land rarely visited by humans. One species of plant managed to elude me during my time in that beautiful part of the country. The plant is incredibly rare and thus a focus of federal protection and restoration efforts. 

Based on first impressions, blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii) may look like any other penstemon. The similarities stop there and indeed, this is one of the most unique species of penstemon I have ever heard of. Originally it was only known from a few locations in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Recently, a few populations were discovered in Wyoming but it is by no means common. 

As its common name suggests, P. haydenii is a specialist of blowouts. These depressions in the sand are caused by blustering winds that carve out and remove all vegetation. Most plants cannot survive in these conditions. There is very little water, the sands are constantly shifting, and as the wind kicks up sand at high speeds, the abrasive force can actually cut down frail vegetation. This is where P. haydenii excels. 

It has a thick, waxy cuticle covering its stem and leaves that protect it from this sandblasting effect as well as drought. The seeds of these species are dispersed by wind and have extreme longevity in the soil. They can remain dormant for decades until the right conditions are present for them to germinate. P. haydenii seeds need at least 2 weeks of steady moisture and lots of abrasion from sand in order to break dormancy. Research has shown that these conditions are only ever present one out of every 8 to 10 years. As a result, P. haydenii has a debilitatingly small recruitment window. 

This rarity has placed it on the endangered species list. Ironically, the very regulations that were put into place to control range degradation by cattle ranchers may have caused serious declines in this species. It was once common practice to over-graze the land where P. haydenii is found and as a result, vegetation became sparse. This increased the likelihood of blowout formation, which favored P. haydenii. Fire suppression is another threat. Regular fires help kill back vegetation that would otherwise outcompete P. haydenii

With droughts on the increase and human activities expanding into areas where the few remaining populations of P. haydenii occur, the future of this strange little endemic is uncertain. There has been a lot of effort to save and restore this species numbers but it is by no means the end of the story. Only time will tell...

Photo Credit: Vernon Jenewein Vljenewein

Further Reading:
http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=peha12

http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=Q2EX

The Tallest of Palms

High up in a mountain valley in Colombia grows one of the most remarkable palms in the world. Known scientifically as Ceroxylon quindiuense, the Quindío wax palm towers like a lanky monolith above the surrounding vegetation. Not only is this the tallest species of palm in the world, it is, by extension, the tallest monocot as well.

Standing at heights of over 160 feet, the Quindío wax palm looks all the stranger with its narrow trunk and tuft of fronds all the way at the top. It is called a wax palm because members of this genus produce a waxy substance from their trunk. In the past, this wax was harvested for its use in making torches. Until electricity became widely available, these palms were felled en masse for this purpose.

Quindío wax palms are slow to mature. For at least 15 years they focus much of their energy on radial or outward growth of the trunk. For 15 years, all the tree puts out are three pinnate leaves. Things change once the tree hits 15. It will begin its climb into the sky. Every year it sheds leaves, which creates a dark ring around the trunk. Because of this, it is easy to estimate the approximate age of any given wax palm. Count the rings and add 15 years for stem development plus another 5 for a full crown. It is believed that these palms can take upwards of 80 years to reach sexual maturity!

Because of its limited geographic range, Quindío wax palms are at risk of extinction. The young fronds are favorites among Catholics of the region for their use in Palm Sunday ceremonies. Stands that exhibit heavy harvesting have a hard time of recovering. At the same time, their native range is quickly being converted to pasture land as well as other forms of agriculture. Even if trees are left standing, their seeds find it difficult to germinate and survive under the altered microclimates of these human environments.

Luckily for Ceroxylon quindiuense, the government of Colombia recognizes how special this species is. Not only is it now the national tree and emblem of Colombia, its is now a protected species. All logging of Quindío wax palms is illegal. Still, major portions of their remaining populations are located within pasture lands.

Photo Credit: nuria mpascual (http://bit.ly/1CImC7T)

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/1CImCEP

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/38467/0

A Strange Gymnosperm From Africa

What you are looking at here is not just a pile of discarded leaves. It is indeed a living plant. Would you believe me if I told you that it is a distant relative of pines, spruces, larches and firs? It's true! This right here is Welwitschia mirabilis, a representative of an ancient lineage of gymnosperm!

Welwitschia is endemic to the Namib Desert of Africa. It is hard to picture any plant living in such a dry area. In some years it never even rains. Welwitschia persists despite this fact. It tends to grow in watercourses and outcrops, thus enabling it to gather what precious little rain does fall. It has a deep taproot suggesting that it relies heavily on ground water. The leaves of Welwitschia also have high amounts of stomata on both surfaces enabling it to absorb water directly from the fog that regularly blows through when colder air currents mix with hot air from the desert.

For a long time it was believed that Welwitschia represented true neoteny, which is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. It was thought that Welwitschia was nothing more than a sexually mature seedling with exaggerated cotyledons. This idea was later abandoned when Martens showed that Welwitschia do develop further than the seedling stage. What really happens is the apical bud, which is responsible for vertical growth in plants, dies quite early on in development. In essence, Welwitschia has lost its "head."

I was not kidding when I said that Welwitschia is a gymnosperm. Once sexual maturity is reached, cones are produced. Individual plants are either male or female and unlike many of its relatives, Welwitschia is not wind pollenated. Instead it relies on insects to transfer pollen from male cones to female cones.

Probably the most remarkable aspect of Welwitschia ecology is its longevity. Individual plants can live well over 1000 years. Some individuals are estimated at around 2000 years old! In such a harsh desert environment, persistence is the key to survival for Welwitschia.

Photo Credit: Petr Kosina

Further Reading:
http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2442386…

http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantwxyz/welwitschia.htm

A Mallow Called Kankakee

In the spirit of this week's podcast I would like to take a look at a very special plant. It happens to be one of the rarest plant species in the lower 48. What may surprise you even more is that this species is endemic to a small island in the middle of the Kankakee River of Illinois called Langham Island. I am, of course, talking about the Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota).

It is strange to think of something endemic to a 20 acre island in the midwest but that seems to be the case. Though disjunct populations have been located in Indiana, experts feel that these were the result of early attempts at saving this species from extinction. In fact, the rarity of this plant was realized quite early on. A series of taxonomic revisions made it so that by the early 1920's, botanists knew that Iliamna remota was distinct from similar species such as liamna rivularis and Iliamna corei.

Despite its uniqueness, there doesn't seem to be too many explanations as to why this species is limited to Langham Island. Perhaps our recent glacial past has something to do with it. It very well could also be due to the fact that roughly 80% of Illinois has been converted to farmland. It is also due, in part, to the lack of life-giving fires that the prairies so desperately need. Indeed, after decades of attention, Langham Island and the Kankakee mallow seemed to have faded from the spotlight.

In 1981, botanists realized that most of the plants on the island had disappeared. Only 109 individuals remained and no seedlings were found. It was starting to look like this species was doomed to extinction. Growing up in their place were thick stands of Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose. Luckily a handful of concerned biologists decided to light some fires. Wherever the fires burned away the invasive competition, seedlings began to emerge. Close inspection would reveal that these were the next generation of Kanakakee mallow!

A missing piece of this biological puzzle had been restored. The mallow seeds were waiting in the soil for a fire to release them from the tyranny of these invaders. It would seem that the future of this species was a bright one. Sadly, another round of budget cuts coupled with a decrease in public interest had swept through the region. When a group of botanists again went looking for this species in the summer of 2014, they realized that, to their horror, history seemed to have repeated itself. Gone were the remaining populations of the Kankakee mallow. Honeysuckle and multiflora rose had returned with vengeance.

It was clear that if this species were to be saved, Langham Island would need more dedicated attention. Thus the Friends of Langham Island was born. Since then, brush cutting and controlled burns have meant that the Kankakee mallow has once again rose from the ashes, literally. Ongoing attention from a concerned group of citizens may be the only means left at saving this endangered plant.

Photo Credit: Prairie Moon Nursery

Further Reading:
www.habitat2030.org

Check out The Brain Scoop's video about this plant

Listen to a podcast episode dedicated to the restoration of these species' habitat