Feed Me, Seymour!

In the spirit of spooky-ness, today I would like to introduce you to one of the creepiest plants that I know of. I spent a lot of time debating on which species could be considered the "creepiest" but after much deliberation I decided it was Hydnora africana.

This plant has no common name but regardless, the ecology of this species is quite interesting. Hydnora africana is native to southern Africa and as you can probably tell from the picture, it has no chlorophyll. Instead of wasting energy on producing its own food, Hydnora africana has resorted to parasitism. It is a root parasite on members of the family Euphorbiaceae. It taps into the roots of a host plant using specialized structures called "haustoria." In this way they are able to gather all their nutritional needs from their host. Once Hydnora africana has obtained enough energy it will produce a flower.

The flower is all you will ever see of this plant. The strange, scaly structure emerges from the ground underneath it's host. Three slits begin to form, each lined with white, hair-like structures. At first these structures remain intact. The spaces between are just big enough to allow entry of pollinators, which in this case are dung beetles. Once the flower opens these slits it begins to produce some heat, not unlike what we see in many arums. The heat helps to spread the scent. The smell is what you would expect from a plant trying to attract dung beetles. It smells like feces.

When a beetle arrives looking for some fresh poop, it enters the flower through those slits and falls down into the trap. The rest of the flower is a tube-like structure underground. To keep the beetles from escaping Hydnora africana employs a trick used by many carnivorous pitcher plants. Lining the walls are downward pointing hairs that prevent the beetles from crawling out before their job is complete. Once inside, the beetles are drawn to the center where the smell is emitted. Here they are generously dusted with pollen. If the beetles have arrived after a previous Hydnora africana visit then they will also deposit pollen and thus pollination is achieved. Once the plant releases pollen onto the beetles, the hairs relax and the slits open completely, allowing the beetles to escape.

I hope some day to see this plant in person. To the best of my knowledge it has only been grown in captivity once. Seeds were sown in a pot containing a known host species of euphorbia. It took a very long time for germination and even longer to mature and produce a flower. Either way this creepy species is actually quite fascinating.

Photo Credit: www.botany.org

Further Reading:
http://www.botany.org/parasitic_plants/Hydnora_africana.php

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19584128

http://sci.odu.edu/biology/directory/IJPS_v170n2_2009.pdf