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 showy, they are rather small and their dark coloration causes them to blend in 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 flies are generally viewed as sub par pollinators for most flowering plants, the fetid adderstongues seem to do 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 ant 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 group that 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]


Let's hear it for ants! 

Thats right, ants. Without ants I would venture to stay that a lot of life as we know it would be radically different. One of the many ways in which ants fill important niche roles is as seed dispersers. 

Known as myrmecochory, many species of plants rely on ants to move their seeds from place to place. They encourage the ants to do this by attaching appendages to their seeds called elaiosomes. Elaiosomes are little fleshy structures that are packed full of lipids and proteins. Foraging ants take these seeds back to their colonies where the elaiosome is eaten and the seed is then discarded. Ants have special chambers in their colonies for trash. They are basically little underground compost heaps. 

When the seeds are thrown away, they suddenly find themselves in a very stable, nutrient rich area where they can safely germinate. It makes so much sense. The ants get a little meal and the plant has provided its offspring with one of the safest storage and planting environments. Next time you are hiking in the woods and see a population of plants that evolved this method, there is a good chance that an ant colony is near by. 

There is also some evidence to suggest that the seeds gain a cleaning benefit from the ants as well. Living in close quarters and in such high numbers as ants do, disease is a particularly prevalent issue. Because of that, ants have evolved specialized glands that secrete a liquid with antimicrobial properties. It is possible that ants may inadvertently clean seeds that enter their nest with this fluid. Since diseases, especially certain types of fungi, are one of the leading causes of seedling mortality, it is very possible that this is yet another added benefit of having ants as your seed dispersal agent. More research is necessary to see if this is truly what is going on. 

The sheer number of plants species that utilize ants in this way is staggering. Here in North America, the majority of myrmecochorous plants are spring ephemerals. There is a lot less food available to ants in the spring, making these seeds very appealing. Once summer hits, scavenging ants are less likely to pay attention to seeds in lieu of more nutritious food available. Here are just a few examples you may be familiar with:

Wild ginger
Dutchman's breeches
Trout lily

Photo Credit: Cotinis

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