The Fetid Adderstongue

"Fetid adderstongue" seems like a pretty ominous name for such a small and beautiful plant. Hailing from coastal North America, the genus Scoliopus is most at home in the deep shaded forests of California and Oregon. Spring is the best time to see these little lilies and once you know a little bit about their ecology, such encounters are made all the more interesting.

There are two species nestled within this genus - S. bigelovii and S. hallii. Both are similar in that they are plants of deep shaded environments, however, you are more likely to find S. hallii growing along the banks of wooded streams. As is typical of many members of the lily family, their flowers are quite beautiful in appearance. The trick is finding them. Though quite showy, they are rather small and their dark coloration causes them to blend in quite well in their shaded environments. That is all fine and dandy for a species that relies more on smell rather than looks to attract pollinators.

As the common name suggests, the flowers of the fetid adderstongues give off a bit of an odor. I have heard it best described as "musty." The flowers of these two species attract a lot of fungus gnats. Although these tiny little flies are generally viewed as sub par pollinators for most flowering plants, the fetid adderstongues seem to do quite well with them. What they lack in robust pollination behavior, they make up for in sheer numbers. There are a lot of fungus gnats hanging around wet, shaded forests.

The flowers themselves are borne on tall stalks. Though they look separate, they are actually an extension of a large, underground umbel. Once pollination has been achieved, the flower stalks begin to bend over putting the developing ovaries much closer to the ground. Each seed comes equip with a fleshy little attachment called an eliasome. These are essentially ant bait. Once mature, the seeds are released near the base of the parent. Hungry ants that are out foraging find the fleshy attachment much to their liking.

They bring the seeds back to the nest, remove the eliasomes, and discard the seed into a trash midden. Inside the ants nest, seeds are well protected, surrounded by nutrient-rich compost, and as some evidence is starting to suggest, guarded against damaging fungal invaders. In other words, the plants have tricked ants into planting their seeds for them. This is a very successful strategy that is adopted by many different plant species the world over.

Though small, the fetid adderstongues are two plants with a lot of character. They are definitely a species you want to keep an eye out for the next time you find yourself in the forests of western North America. If you do end up finding some, just take some time to think of all the interesting ecological interactions these small lilies maintain.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

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