Groundnut

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As common names go, groundnut doesn't quite seem fitting for such a distinctive plant. Known scientifically as Apios americana, this leguminous vine can be found growing along a variety of edge habitats throughout much of eastern North America. It becomes most obvious to passers by from July through September when it is flowering. 

Okay, to be fair, groundnut is a fairly accurate description. Not only are the seeds of this vine edible, so too are the starchy tubers it grows from. However, I think this all detracts from a rather intriguing ecology. Populations of groundnut occur in one of two forms - diploid (2 sets of chromosomes) or triploid (three sets of chromosomes). It would seem that entire populations can sometimes consist of the triploid variety. 

This is a bit odd because triploid plants are sterile. Though they produce seemingly functional flowers, they never produce seed. Instead, these populations reproduce vegetatively via their underground tubers. Other than their lack of reproductive ability, there doesn't seem to be any other noticeable differences between diploids and triploids. Whatever the reason, it is obviously working for the groundnut.

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Speaking of reproduction, there seems to be a bit of mystery concerning the types of pollinators targeted by this vine. Groundnut flowers, with their carrion-like appearance and strange odor, may be attracting carrion flies. Some authors are rather set on this hypothesis despite very little evidence. A more thorough investigation into the pollination ecology of groundnut revealed that bees were the only visitors, however, nothing conclusive could be said about their effectiveness.

What can be said is that the flowers require insects of a certain size for pollination to occur. The flowers themselves are essentially miniature spring traps. When insects of a certain size land on the flowers they trigger the release of the anthers, which slam into the insect, dusting it with pollen. This is a very similar strategy to a close relative of groundnut, alfalfa (Medicago sativa), which is definitely bee pollinated. 

Despite all of the confusion surrounding groundnut, it is nonetheless a great species. It fixes nitrogen, provides food for wildlife and humans alike, and looks really cool to boot. This would be a great addition to a native plant garden throughout its range. 

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