How Aroids Turn Up the Heat

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A subset of plants have evolved the ability to produce heat, a fact that may come as a surprise to many reading this. The undisputed champions of botanical thermogenesis are the aroids (Araceae). Exactly why they do so is still the subject of scientific debate but the means by which heat is produced is absolutely fascinating.

The heat producing organ of an aroid is called the spadix. Technically speaking, a spadix is a spike of minute flowers closely arranged around a fleshy axis. All aroid inflorescences have one and they come in a wide variety of shapes, colors, and textures. To produce heat, the spadix is hooked up to a massive underground energy reserve largely in the form of carbohydrates or sugars. The process of turning these sugars into heat is rather complex and surprisingly animal-like.

Cross section of a typical aroid inflorescence with half of the protective spathe removed. The spadix is situated in the middle with a rings of protective hairs (top), male flowers (middle), and female flowers (bottom).

Cross section of a typical aroid inflorescence with half of the protective spathe removed. The spadix is situated in the middle with a rings of protective hairs (top), male flowers (middle), and female flowers (bottom).

It all starts with a compound we are rather familiar with - salicylic acid - as it is the main ingredient in Aspirin. In aroids, however, salicylic acid acts as a hormone whose job it is to initiate both the heating process as well as the production of floral scents. It signals the mitochondria packed inside a ring of sterile flowers located at the base of the spadix to change their metabolic pathway.

In lieu of their normal metabolic pathway, which ends in the production of ATP, the mitochondria switch over to a pathway called the "Alternative Oxidase Metabolic Pathway." When this happens, the mitochondria start burning sugars using oxygen as a fuel source. This form of respiration produces heat.

Thermal imaging of the inflorescence of  Arum maculatum .

Thermal imaging of the inflorescence of Arum maculatum.

As you can imagine, this can be a costly process for plants to undergo. A lot of energy is consumed as the inflorescence heats up. Nonetheless, some aroids can maintain this costly level of respiration intermittently for weeks on end. Take the charismatic skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) for example. Its spadix can reach temperatures of upwards of 45 °F (7 °C) on and and off for as long as two weeks. Even more incredible, the plant is able to do this despite freezing ambient temperatures, literally melting its way through layers of snow.

For some aroids, however, carbohydrates just don't cut it. Species like the Brazilian Philodendron bipinnatifidum produce a staggering amount of floral heat and to do so requires a different fuel source - fat. Fats are not a common component of plant metabolisms. Plants simply have less energy requirements than most animals. Still, this wonderful aroid has converged on a fat-burning metabolic pathway that puts many animals to shame. 

The inflorescence of  Philodendron bipinnatifidum  can reach temps as high as 115 °F (46 °C)

The inflorescence of Philodendron bipinnatifidum can reach temps as high as 115 °F (46 °C)

P. bipinnatifidum stores lots of fat in sterile male flowers that are situated between the fertile male and female flowers near the base of the spadix. As soon as the protective spathe opens, the spadix bursts into metabolic action. As the sun starts to set and P. bipinnatifidum's scarab beetle pollinators begin to wake up, heat production starts to hit a crescendo. For about 20 to 40 minutes, the inflorescence of P. bipinnatifidum reaches temperatures as high as 95 °F (35 °C) with one record breaker maxing out at 115 °F (46 °C)! Amazingly, this process is repeated again the following night.

It goes without saying that burning fat at a rate fast enough to reach such temperatures requires a lot of oxygen. Amazingly, for the two nights it is in bloom, the P. bipinnatifidum inflorescence consumes oxygen at a rate comparable to that of a flying hummingbird, which are some of the most metabolically active animals on Earth.

The world's largest inflorescence belongs to the titan arum ( Amorphophallus titanum ) and it too produces heat.

The world's largest inflorescence belongs to the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) and it too produces heat.

Again, why these plants go through the effort of heating their reproductive structures is still a bit of a mystery. For most, heat likely plays a role in helping to volatilize floral scents. Anyone that has spent time around blooming aroids knows that this plant family produces a wide range of odors from sweet and spicy to downright offensive. By warming these compounds, the plant may be helping to lure in pollinators from a greater distance away. It is also thought that the heat may be an attractant in and of itself. This is especially true for temperate species like the aforementioned skunk cabbage, which frequently bloom during colder months of the year. Likely both play a role to one degree or another throughout the aroid family.

What we can say is that the process of plant thermogenesis is absolutely fascinating and well worth deeper investigation. We still have much to learn about this charismatic group of plants.

LEARN MORE ABOUT AROID POLLINATION HERE

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

 

Do Yeasts Aid Pollination For the Stinking Hellebore?

Whether they are growing in their native habitat or in some far away garden, Hellebores are some of the earliest plants to bloom in the spring. Hellebore flowers can often be seen blooming long before the snow has melted away. All early blooming plant species are faced with the challenge of attracting pollinators. Though the competition for insect attention is minimal among these early bloomers, only the hardiest insects are out and about on cold, dreary days. It stands to reason then that anything that can entice a potential pollinator would be of great benefit for a plant.

That is why the presence of yeast in the nectar of at least one species of Hellebore has attracted the attention of scientists. The species in question is known scientifically as Helleborus foetidus. The lack of appeal in its binomial is nothing compared to its various common names. One can often find H. foetidus for sale under names like the "stinking hellebore" or worse, "dungwort." All of these have to do with the unpleasant aroma given off by its flowers and bruised foliage. Surprisingly, that is not the topic of this post.

What is more intriguing about the flowers of H. foetidus is that the nectar produced by its smelly green flowers harbors dense colonies of yeast. Yeasts are everywhere on this planet and despite their economic importance, little is known about how they function in nature. For instance, what the heck are these yeast colonies doing in the nectar of this odd Hellebore?

To test this, two researchers from the Spanish National Research Council manipulated yeast colonies within the flowers to see what might be happening. It turns out, yeast in the nectar of H. foetidus actually warms the flowers. As the yeast feed on the sugars within the nectar, their metabolic activity can raise the temperature of the flowers upwards of 2 °C above the ambient. As far as we know, the only other ways in which floral heating has been achieved is either via specific metabolic processes within the floral tissues or by direct heating from the sun. 

In heating the flowers, these yeast colonies may be having serious impacts on the reproductive success of H. foetidus. For starters, these plants are most at home under the forest canopies of central and western Europe. What's more, many populations find themselves growing in the dense shade of evergreens. This completely rules out the ability to utilize solar energy to heat blooms. Additionally, floral heat can mean more visits by potential pollinators. Experiments have shown that bees preferentially visit flowers that are slightly warmer than ambient temperatures. Even the flowers themselves can benefit from that heat. Warmer flowers have higher pollination rates and better seed set.

Bombus terrestris  was one of the most common floral visitors of  Helleborus foetidus.

Bombus terrestris was one of the most common floral visitors of Helleborus foetidus.

Yeast colonies also have their downsides. The heat generated by the yeast comes from the digestion of sugars. Indeed, nectar housing yeast colonies had drastically reduced sugar loads than nectar without yeast. This has the potential to offset many of the benefits of floral warming in large part because bees are good at discriminating. Bees are visiting these blooms as a food source and by diminishing the sugar content of the nectar, the yeast may be turning bees off to this potential source. The question then becomes, do bees prefer heat over sugar-rich food? The authors think there might be a trade-off, with bees preferring heated flowers on colder days and sugar-rich flowers on warmer days.

Helleborus foetidus  flowering before the snow has had a chance to melt!

Helleborus foetidus flowering before the snow has had a chance to melt!

Though the authors found evidence for heating, they did not test for pollinator preference. All we know at this point is that yeast in the nectar significantly warms H. foetidus flowers. Since this piece was originally published, more attention has been paid to the benefits of the heat generated from yeast. Interestingly, researchers found that pollen tube formation was higher for H. foetidus flowers that experienced heat earlier in the season but not for those that experienced heat later on. This response, however, was not due to the warming directly. Instead, it had more to do with bee preference.

As it turns out, bumblebees do in fact prefer to visit heated flowers but their preference is limited to the early periods of flowering when ambient temperatures are still quite low. More bumblebees visiting heated flowers in the early spring equated to more pollen being deposited on the stigma, which in turn led to an increase in pollen tube formation and higher seed set. Later on in the season, when ambient temperatures increased a bit, this positive effect dropped off as bees apparently spent more time foraging elsewhere.

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

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

The Explosive Dwarf Mistletoes

I used to think mistletoes were largely a southern phenomenon, preferring regions with mild or even no winters. Then I was introduced to the dwarf mistletoes in the genus Arceuthobium. These odd parasites can be found growing throughout the northern hemisphere. Their affinity for conifers has landed them on the watch list of many a forester yet, despite their economic implications, the dwarf mistletoes are fascinating parasitic plants. 

First and foremost, these are aggressive little plants. They vary in their host specificity. Some species can grow on a wide variety of conifer species from Abies balsamea (balsam fir), Larix laricina (American larch), to Pinus strobus (eastern white pine), whereas others are more specialized, preferring only spruces (Picea spp.). Regardless, infestations of these parasites can do some interesting things to conifer stands. 

Similar to other mistletoes, the dwarfs are stem parasites. They penetrate into their hosts vascular tissues and set up shop, sucking up water and photosynthates and giving nothing in return. Because of this, large infestations can seriously drain their host trees as they themselves have reduced or even no photosynthetic capacity. Additionally, they interfere with nutrient and hormone flows throughout the branches of their host. Such disruptions can result in the formation of dense clusters of branches called "witches brooms." Some dwarf mistletoe infestations can become so intense that they effectively girdle their host tree.

In natural settings, this serves an ecological function. By weakening their hosts, dwarf mistletoes can leave room for other plant species to take root. They also keep one species from becoming too dominant. As such, mistletoe infestations can actually increase plant diversity in the long run. Dwarf mistletoe infestations only become an issue once humans get involved. They can cause serious financial issues for foresters as well as damage important or valued specimen trees. In our highly fragmented forests, their natural behavior can get in the way of human ideals. 

All of this talk of damage can distract us from just how amazing some of these species really are from an organismal standpoint. For instance, the lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe, Arceuthobium americanum, is capable of thermogenesis. Unlike the other examples of thermogenesis in the plant world, this has nothing to do with flowers. Instead, thermogenesis in A. americanum is used as a seed dispersal agent. 

The dwarf mistletoes don't rely on fleshy fruits to get their seeds from one tree to another. Instead, they utilize ballistic means. As their seed pods mature, they gradually swell. Once pressure is great enough, the seed pods erupt, sending their sticky seeds flying through the canopy at speeds of up to 62 mph (100 km/h)! If lucky, the seeds will stick to the branches of a viable host or be transported there in the fur or feathers of an animal. For A. americanum, the eruption of its seed pods is triggered by heat. Using specialized metabolic pathways at the cellular level, A. americanum is able to heat its seed pods up to ~2 °C warmer than its surroundings, thus triggering its pods to explode. 

Pretty incredible for a species so often labelled as a pest. 

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]