Carnivorous Bromeliads

Brocchinia reducta

Brocchinia reducta

I would like to introduce you to quite possibly the strangest members of the Bromeliad family - those of the genus Brocchinia. Aside from the odd appearance and habits of this particular group, researchers have learned quite a bit about the Bromeliad family as a whole from studying this group. From their origins to their impressive radiation, Brocchinia offers us a window into the history of this charismatic family.

Brocchinia are considered sister to all other bromeliads. They were the first genus to diverge some 70 million years ago. Their center of origin can be traced back to the Guayana Shield, a region in the northeast corner of what is now South America. The earliest members of this group were likely terrestrial plants growing in nutrient poor areas. Surprisingly, the epiphytic nature of many bromeliad species we know and love today evolved more recently.

Brocchinia reducta

Brocchinia reducta

Since this time, Brocchinia has undergone an impressive adaptive radiation. Because they have remained specialists on nutrient poor soils, much of this radiation has to do with the evolution of nutrient acquisiton. Like its cousins, Brocchinia utilize a "tank" formed by their tightly clasped leaves.

Interestingly, at least two species of Brocchinia, (B. reducta and B. hechtioides) have taken this to the extreme and have adopted a carnivorous lifestyle. Their tall, columnar growth form coupled with slick, waxy leaves means insects can't keep a foothold and fall down into the tank. The plants sweeten the deal by luring them in with sweet secretions.

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Whether or not this was a case of true carnivory was highly debated until 2005 when a group of researchers analyzed the chemical makeup of the liquid inside the tank. They discovered that they plant was secreting an enzyme called phosphatase, which actively digest hapless insects that fall in. A true carnivore indeed!

Others have even more peculiar evolutionary adaptations for nutrient acquisition. B. tatei, for example, was discovered to house nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria within its tank. Another species, B. acuminata, produces hallow chambers at the base of its leaves that house ant colonies. The ants pay rent via their nutrient-rich waste and voracious defense of their bromeliad home.

Brocchinnia acuminata

Brocchinnia acuminata

In total, this group is quite amazing. The amount of information we have been able to glean from studying Brocchinia has allowed us to shine a light on the whole bromeliad family. As we have also seen, the species within this group have quite the evolutionary history to tell in their own way. Brocchinia serves as a reminder to researchers blind to organismal study. We shouldn't have to study ecology at the expense of individual organisms. There is plenty to learn from both avenues of research.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Is it a Fungus? Is it a Forb? No, it's a Tree!

Botanical gardens are winter sanctuaries for a northerner like myself. Winter tree ID can only do so much for me during these times. As such, I try my best to make regular trips to tropical houses wherever and whenever I can. On a recent excursion to the Missouri Botanical Garden, I came across something completely unexpected.

I was perusing their tropical house aptly named "The Climatron." As I rounded a corner I happened to look down and saw what looked like something only a member of the birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) could produce. There, lying near the ground were a cluster of some of the coolest flowers I have personally laid eyes on.

I began searching for the plant that produced them. Up until this point, I have only encountered members of this family in the form of low-lying understory herbs and scrambling vines dangling from the canopy. There were no apparent leaves associated with these flowers and the part of my brain responsible for search images became confused. I traced the flower stems to their place of origin and realized they were attached to the nearest trunk. I followed the trunk upwards and realized that what I had found was in fact a small tree!

The species I was looking at was none other than Aristolochia arborea, a small tree native to the tropical forests of Central America. Needless to say I was floored. There is something to be said about any plant family than can vary this much in size and habit. The coolest aspect about this tree is that, similar to the more herbaceous members of this family, the flowers are produced close to or directly on the forest floor.

A closer inspection of these strange blooms reveals an interesting morphology. It would appear that they are mimicking fungi in the genus Marasimus. Now this could simply be a manifestation of apophenia. Was I seeing patterns where there are none? Of course, this was a job for scientific literature.

It seems I may have been on to something. Botanists agree that in the wild this plant is pollinated by fungus gnats and flies. However, no direct observations of this have ever been made. That being said, the flowers do emit a rather musty smell that could very well be described as "fungal." Regardless, this is an excellent choice of tree to showcase in a botanical garden because stumbling into it like I did led me down an curious path of discovery.

Tree photo credit: Cymothoa exigua (Wikimedia Commons)

Further Reading: [1] [2]

New Plant Species Discovered on Facebook

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There are many downsides to the amount of time some of us spend on the internet but there is no denying that there are some incredible benefits as well. Never before in human history has information been so readily available to so many people. Without Facebook, In Defense of Plants would not have anywhere near the platform from which I can interact with all of you wonderful plant folk. In what may be one of the coolest uses of social media to date, a new species of carnivorous plant has been discovered using Facebook! 

While exploring a mountain top in Brazil, amateur researcher  Reginaldo Vasconcelos snapped a few shots of a large sundew. Upon returning home, the pictures were uploaded to Facebook for the world to see. It didn't take long for scientists to notice that the plant in the picture was something quite special. 

Indeed, what Vasconcelos had photographed was a species of Drosera completely new to science! This is the first time that a new species has been discovered using social media. Experts have now published the first scientific description of this species. It has been named Drosera magnifica - the magnificent sundew. 

And magnificent it is! According to the authors of the paper, "It is the largest sundew in the Americas, and the second-largest carnivorous plant in the Americas. In this respect it is also a spectacular plant.” The plant was discovered in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Oddly enough, the mountain on which it was found is readily accessible. How this species went undiscovered for so long is quite a mystery. It just goes to show you how little we know about the world we live in. 

That sad part about this discovery is that the mountain it is endemic to is surrounded by cattle ranches as well as coffee and eucalyptus plantations. The future of this brand new species is by no means certain. Researchers have already elevated its status to critically endangered. Unless other populations are found, this species may disappear not long after its discovery. 

Photo Credit: Paulo Gonella

Further Reading:

http://www.mapress.com/phytotaxa/content/2015/f/p00220p267f.pdf

The Rosulate Violas

The rosulate violas of South America are amazing. Adapted to the harsh, windy environment provided by the mountains of Chile and Patagonia, these little plants are as tough as they are beautiful!

Photo Credit: Dick Culbert (http://bit.ly/1iv5WXr), Omskflower.ru, The Ecological and Environmental Change Research Group (http://bit.ly/1nlbknN), Christian Ostrosky (http://bit.ly/1jEslX7), Pato Novoa (http://bit.ly/SDQoMi , http://bit.ly/1jjT1Nh)

Something Smells...

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Plant nurseries are a dangerous place for me. Well, not really me so much as my wallet. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting plant friends to bring home. I recently visited a local nursery that has 4 hoop houses worth of plants to ogle. As I was walking the crowded alleyways between row after row of botanical treasures, something tucked away in a back corner caught my eye. There was a stark juxtaposition between burgundy and deep green that I simply could not ignore. I tip toed around a variety of succulents, dracaena, and gesneriads to investigate this colorful curiosity. 

As I approached this odd little plant I realized there was a long spike jutting out of the top. Ah, so this was some sort of peperomia. At this point I could see why it was kept among succulents. The leaves of this peperomia are quite succulent. Like fat little canoes, the leaves appeared to have green window-like surfaces that quickly gave way to a red bilge. This was truly unique. I had to have it. 

Despite the fact that it was the only one of its kind, I got it for a steal. It wasn't planted very well so I had to be quite careful getting it home. Mixing up soil can be fun, especially when you know the plant you are catering to. This was not one of those cases. Regardless, the succulent nature of the plant hinted at a need for a well drained mix. Three parts gravel to one part compost should do the trick. Despite its size, the plant had an under-developed root system. This explains why it was so floppy on the ride home. Once it was in its new pot, I had to go about picking out a perfect spot on the shelf. I knew that plants like Crassulas and aloes turn colors under high light so I figured this would be my best bet at preserving the beauty of this specimen. I watered it and sat back to enjoy its beauty among all the other plants in the collection. 

Later that day I began noticing an odd smell. It wasn't necessarily offensive yet it wasn't easily ignored either. It was also restricted to one area near the plant shelf. My nose didn't reveal the source. I put shoes outside and checked the area for anything that may be starting to rot. Nothing. After a while I must have gotten used to it and after a couple hours I forgot about it. Days went by and every once in a while the smell would creep its way into my nose. I was very confused and yet too busy to be serious about locating the source. 

I like to show off my plants so I made sure to draw attention to this new peperomia any time someone dropped by for a visit. It seemed to resonate well with friends. After a series of inquiries into this plants identity I decided to do my homework. Simply referring to it as a mystery peperomia wasn't satisfying enough. Luckily the internet exists. A quick image search for "succulent red peperomia" gave me my answer. 

My beautiful plant friend was none other than Peperomia graveolens, an endemic of mountainous forests in Ecuador. To my surprise, this is not a species that enjoys a lot of sun. The burgundy undersides are thought to assist the plant in soaking up as much sunlight as possible as it ekes out a living under the canopy. I guess I was going to have to move this plant to a lower shelf. The good news is that the soil mixture I made was going to work. There was no need to disturb the meager root system any more than I already had. 

Apparently this species is only known from two wild populations. All of the plants in cultivation are descendants of collections made in 1973 by some German botanists. This is truly a special plant! As I was reading various plant care websites, a recurring theme in the writing caught my attention. The inflorescence of this species is said to have a "mousey odor." I have seen that term before but, even after years of working in pet stores, I couldn't quite picture what a mousey odor would be like. Urine perhaps? Then I realized something. That strange odor was still present in and around the plant shelf. Could this be what I was smelling? I carefully picked up the plant and gave it a sniff. Yep! There is was. I still don't think of mice when I smell it but I can see how such descriptive terms could be applied. Regardless, my introduction to this wonderful little plant has made it all the more interesting. This is one of the main reasons I keep house plants. My collection is my own little botanical garden that I fill with species that capture my imagination. 

Further Reading:

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/45780/0