Tag Archives: Botany

Is the tropical epiphytic house plant Monolena primuliflora an “ant plant”?

I love going to botanic gardens and I keep a “life list” of those that I have visited. So on a visit to Lund University last week, to give a seminar and take part in an MSc defence, I was delighted to be able to add another one to that list. Lund University Botanical Garden is quite small, like many such urban gardens, and this is not the best time of the year to visit. But there was a good show of early spring plants in flowers, the sun was shining, and quite a number of people were enjoying the peace and calm in the middle of a city.

The glasshouses were especially busy, and they have a nice collection of cold-sensitive plants arranged by habitat and taxonomy, such as cacti and succulents, ferns, orchids, and so forth. One of the reasons why I enjoy botanic gardens so much is that I always, without exception, see plants that I have never previously encountered, often doing unexpected things.

Lund was no exception, and I was particularly intrigued by a plant called Monolena primuliflora which was being grown in a hanging basket, as is often the case with epiphytic plants. It’s a species of Melastomataceae, a family that I know well from tropical field work. But this one looked unlike any melastome that I’d ever seen. In particular, I was drawn to the large rhizome or caudex from which the leaves emerge:

This immediately reminded me of some of the epiphytic “ant plants” such as species of Myrmecodia and Hydophytum and especially ferns such as Lecanopteris. All of these myrmecophyte genera have evolved swollen stems or rhizomes which house colonies of ants. The ants in turn defend the plants against herbivores, in a mutualistically advantageous relationship.

Sure enough, when I searched online for information about Monolena primuliflora, it’s widely described in the house plant community as an “ant plant” – see here and here for example. After I tweeted about this, biologist Guillaume Chomicki (who has been researching these ant-plant interactions) was intrigued but asked about the evidence for it being a myrmecophyte:

That got me thinking, so I dug around in the botanical literature for the evidence and found…..nothing. The standard monograph on the genus by Warner (2002) doesn’t mention it and as far as I can tell (please someone will correct me if I am wrong) there’s no documented study of this species or genus having a myrmecophytic relationship with ants.

If I’m correct, how has the idea of Monolena primuliflora as an ant plant come about? This is a relatively new introduction to the houseplant trade and I suspect that plant sellers have made assumptions about the swollen rhizome (as I did!) to make the plant sound more interesting. There’s no doubt that the rhizome is fascinating and unusual in the family, but its function may be to store water (as found in many epiphytic orchids) rather than to house ants.

In my recent book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, and in this article last year in the magazine British Wildlife, I discussed how the world of plants (and pollinators) is full of myths and misunderstandings. This seems to be another one and by writing this blog post I’m hoping that we can clarify the situation with regard to Monolena primuliflora. So if you have any further information about it, please do comment below.

My thanks to everyone on Twitter who commented about the plant, especially Guillaume for asking the question!

Join me on Thursday for a free talk!

Join me this Thursday at a free online talk organised by Buglife where I’ll be giving an introduction to how flowers function and the ways in which their behaviour manipulates pollinators to ensure reproduction. I’ll be covering:

  • What are flowers and where did they come from?
  • How flowers function and reward pollinators.
  • Some case studies from my own research on flower and pollinator behaviour.
  • Why is it important that we understand floral biology?

Here’s the link to register for the event: https://www.buglife.org.uk/events/to-be-a-flower-with-professor-jeff-ollerton/

I look forward to seeing you there!

Leonard B. Thien (1938-2021) – botanist and pollination biologist

I was saddened to learn recently of the death of Professor Leonard B. Thien of Tulane University who passed away at the end of October after a long illness. Although I didn’t know Professor Thien personally, I knew of his work in floral ecology, pollination biology and plant evolution, topics on which he had worked for since obtaining his PhD in 1968. Over the course of his career he published more than 80 articles on a huge range of botanical subjects, including ground-breaking work on mosquito pollination of orchids (Thien 1969). The orchid species Alaticaulia thienii is named in his honour.

The studies Leonard Thien published that really inspired me when I was first starting out on my journey as a researcher, however, involved his work on “relictual” angiosperms, i.e. flowering plants that have very long evolutionary histories and deep phylogenetic roots back to the early Cretaceous period, for example Magnolia and Illicium. Papers with titles such as “Patterns of pollination in the primitive angiosperms” (Thien 1980) piqued my interest and motivated me to work on Australian Piperaceae for a short while following my PhD (Ollerton 1996). It was a topic that I struggled to gain further funding for, and later molecular systematic studies changed many of our ideas about what constitutes the most basal groups of extant flowering plants. But nonetheless, the questions that Leonard inspired in me, regarding the ecologies of these relictual taxa, and whether we can infer the reproductive ecology of the earliest flowering plants from studies of their surviving descendants, are ones that intrigue me to this day (van der Kooi and Ollerton 2020).

Leonard Thien kept up this interest even as new DNA technologies over turned old ideas, and he was the first to study the reproductive ecology of Amborella trichopoda on New Caledonia, a species now considered to be the earliest surviving clade of flowering plants (Thien et al. 2003). This is just one part of a legacy of work that current and future generations will build upon as we develop our understanding of the relationships between pollinators, plants, and evolutionary processes.

I’m grateful to Peter Bernhardt for prompting this post and for sending me a copy of the In Memoriam article that he and and David White will publish in the Plant Sciences Newsletter in March, and to Lorraine Thien for providing the photograph that accompanies this post.

References

Ollerton, J. (1996) Interactions between gall midges (Diptera: Cecidomyiidae) and inflorescences of Piper novae-hollandiae (Piperaceae) in Australia. The Entomologist 115: 181-184

Thien, L.B. 1969. Mosquito pollination of Habenaria obtusata (Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany 56: 232-237.

Thien, L.B. 1980. Patterns of pollination in the primitive angiosperms. Biotropica 12: 1-14

Thien, L.B., Sage, T.L., Jaffre, T., Bernhardt, P., Pontieri, V., Wesston, P.H., Malloch, D., Azuma, H., Graham, S.W., McPherson, M.A., Hardeep, S.., Sage, R.S. & Dupre, J.-L. 2003. The population structure and floral biology of Amborella trichopoda (Amborellaceae). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 90: 466-490

van der Kooi, C.J. & Ollerton, J. (2020) The origins of flowering plants and pollinators. Science 368: 1306-1308

Consider publishing your pollination and plant reproductive ecology research in the Turkish Journal of Botany!

This month I was appointed to the editorial board of the Turkish Journal of Botany and I’m looking forward to working with the team at the journal to enhance the international profile of this publication. The journal has a long track record: it’s been published continuously since the 1970s and currently has a 5-year impact factor of 1.165.

The Turkish Journal of Botany is one of the official publications of TÜBİTAK (the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) and is fully open access, with no page charges. All papers are published in English. Although it’s a ‘regional’ journal, the scope of what it publishes is not limited to just Turkey. Looking over the last couple of volumes I see authors from Russia, India, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, USA and China, as well as a new species of lichen from Antarctica!

The journal is particularly keen to publish more papers in the area of pollination, floral evolution, plant reproductive ecology, and related topics. So if you’re working in that area and looking for an outlet for your latest paper, please take a look at the Instructions for Authors and consider the Turkish Journal of Botany.

If you have any questions, please write a comment below or send me a message via the Contact page.

The largest West African flower: Pararistolochia goldieana!

Some years ago, browsing in a second hand bookshop, I happened across a copy of an old magazine from 1950 called Nigeria. Published by the then colonial government, it was a miscellaneous collection of articles about the culture, geography and natural history of that fascinating West African country. Although aspects of the contents are problematical by modern standards, I bought it because of a short article about a wild plant with enormous flowers and a remarkable pollination strategy. In particular, the spectacular photograph of a man holding a flower that’s the length of his forearm grabbed my attention: who couldn’t love a flower like that?!

The plant is Pararistolochia goldieana, a vine found in the forests of this region, as described in the introductory text:

These types of flowers are pollinated by flies, a common strategy in the Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) to which the plant belongs. This strategy of fly pollination in which flies are deceived into visiting the flowers by their stink and colour, and temporarily trapped in the enclosed chamber, is something that I explore in detail in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, particularly in the genus Ceropegia. Those plants show convergent evolution with the pollination systems of Aristolochiaceae, though they are unrelated.

Pararistolochia goldieana has a wide distribution across West Africa, including Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The IUCN Red List categorises it as ‘Vulnerable’ due to habitat loss. The population where these photographs were taken is described on the final page of the article:

The city of Ibadan is one of the largest in Nigeria and has grown enormously, ‘from 40 km2 in the 1950s to 250 km2 in the 1990s‘. I wonder if this forest, and its botanical treasures, still exists?

During field work in Gabon in the 1990s I was fortunate enough to encounter a species of Pararistolochia in the rainforest of Lopé National Park. It was a different species to P. goldieana, with rather smaller but no less spectacular flowers, and it stank to high heaven! We knew it was there long before we saw it. I collected some flies from the flowers and had them identified, though I’ve never published the data: it’s available if anyone is working on a review of pollination in the family.

This 1950 article is anonymous, so I don’t know who to acknowledge for the amazing images. However the botanist R.W.J. Keay was working on a revision of the family for the Flora of West Tropical Africa project at the time, so it may have been written by him.

A spectacular new plant has been named to honour a colleague: meet Ceropegia heidukiae!

Finding organisms that have not previously been described by scientists is not unusual; every year, hundreds of ‘new’ species enter the taxonomic literature, a testament to how little we still understand about the Earth’s biodiversity. The majority of these species are insects, because that’s the most diverse group of organisms on the planet. But new species of plants and fungi also turn up regularly: for example in 2020, botanists and mycologists at Kew named 156, including some from Britain.

So although discovering undescribed species is not uncommon, any field biologist will tell you that it’s an exciting moment to spot something that you’re never seen before and which could turn out to be new. That was certainly the case when my colleague Dr Annemarie Heiduk’s attention was drawn to a South African plant that was clearly something special. As Anne said to me this week:

‘I will never ever forget the very moment when I spotted it and immediately knew it was something no-one has ever seen before. And I was so lucky to find it in flower. I cannot describe how beautiful it looked sticking out of the surrounding grass vegetation. It is certainly one of a kind and I really know how lucky I was to have found it. Not once did it ever cross my mind that I will discover a novel Ceropegia species, let alone one that is so distinct!’

So it was that last year Anne discovered the plant that was to be named in her honour: Ceropegia heidukiae. The species has been described by David Styles and Ulrich Meve in the journal Phytotaxa (from where the image above was taken). There’s also an account of the species on the Pollination Research Lab blog, with further photographs and information about the plant.

Anne has been honoured in this way not just because she discovered the plant, but also because, to quote the paper, she:

‘is a pollination ecologist who with her research on the floral chemistry and deceptive pollination strategies of Ceropegia trap flowers has acquired recognition as an expert in this field’

Anne tells me that she has already collected pollinator and floral scent data for this new species, so we can look forward to seeing that published in the near future. I described the fascinating pollination ecology of Ceropegia, including some of Anne’s earlier work, in my recent book. This is a genus of plants that has intrigued me since I first saw photographs of them and started growing them as a teenager, 40 years ago. Since then I’ve published several papers about their pollination strategies, and how they compare with the family Apocynaceae as a whole: see the following links for some examples:

https://jeffollerton.co.uk/2017/09/03/fly-pollination-in-the-trap-flower-genus-ceropegia-a-new-study-just-published/

https://jeffollerton.co.uk/2018/08/21/the-evolution-of-pollination-systems-in-one-of-the-largest-plant-families-a-new-study-just-published-download-it-for-free/

So, a big congratulations to Anne, and to David and Ulrich – it’s an amazing plant! I wonder what else is still waiting to be discovered in the stunning grasslands of South Africa?

Houseplants & Happiness: join me at the LEAF Houseplant Festival – 30th & 31st May!

One of my earliest exposures to botany was growing houseplants as a teenager, encouraged by my dad who, as I discussed in Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, was a very keen gardener. It was my dad who taught me about rooting cuttings in water, how to germinate seeds, and so forth. These are gifts of knowledge that I will always treasure and which I have passed on to my own offspring.

So I was delighted to accept an invitation to run a workshop at the LEAF Houseplant Festival in Market Harborough that takes place from 30th to 31st May this year. Tickets can be booked by following that link, though be aware that they are limited due to social-distancing regulations, and it’s first come, first served.

The workshop that I am running is called ‘Potting Up’ and will focus on the different kinds of potting media to use, how to tailor your compost to specific types of plants, and so forth. As you might expect, I’ll be using my knowledge of plant ecology to explain why different plants have different requirements, and what those requirements are.

As well as running the workshop, Karin and I will be selling off some of our own collection of houseplants on a ‘Pre-loved Plants’ stall. We are in the process of selling our house in Northampton and we need to downsize!

Finally, I will also have a limited number of copies of Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society for sale. If you would like to reserve a signed copy to pick up on the day, please use the Contact form.

I look forward to seeing some of you there: it will be great to actually mix with people, have face-to-face discussions, and interact with an audience that’s in the same room as me!

Rediscovery of a plant species 170 years after it was lost from the Northamptonshire flora

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This past week I’ve been hosting a postgraduate researcher from the University of New South Wales in Australia.  Zoe Xirocostas has been recruited to work on a project on which I’m a collaborating with Prof. Angela Moles and Dr Stephen Bonser (University of New South Wales) and Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy (CSIRO).  It’s funded by the Australian Research Council and will run from 2019-2022.

Zoe’s PhD is about understanding the role of herbivores and pollinators in determining how plant species native to Europe have become invasive in Australia.  She arrived with a wish-list of species that she wants to study at sites in the UK (Northampton), Spain, Estonia, France and Austria, in order to compare them with populations in Australia.  One of those species was small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica), a plant that I hadn’t seen in Northamptonshire.  The NBN Atlas account for the species shows almost no records for central England and when I checked the Northamptonshire Flora it stated that the species had last been recorded in the county in 1843.  Clearly this was not a plant we could study for this phase of the project.  Or so we thought.

By coincidence, the week of Zoe’s preliminary fieldwork coincided with two days of surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus by staff and students.  This is part of an ongoing project to understand how the development has affected local biodiversity.  Friday was to be the last spring bird survey of the season (see this recent post updating that project) and Thursday was to be devoted to plants and bees.

To help with this we had the assistance of two County Recorders: Ryan Clark for the bees and Brian Laney for the plants, both hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Northamptonshire’s biodiversity.  We started the surveys on an area of short-cropped, species-rich turf that is being maintained by a combination of rabbit and Canada goose grazing:

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In no time at all Brian had racked up dozens of plant species; it’s really a very rich site indeed.  Bees were fewer and further between, but after an hour we had a list of about 10 species, including one of my favourites, the ashy mining bee:

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Zoe and her field assistant Susmita were busy bagging flower heads for the pollination experiments when suddenly we heard an excited shout from Brian.  He had moved on to look at some plants that were coming up in a disturbed area of ground some distance away.  Unbelievably, Brian had found small-flowered catchfly!  More than 170 years after it had last been recorded in the county.  On our campus!  We rushed over to take a look, and there it was, near a path that Zoe and I had walked just a couple of days before and completely failed to spot it.  In our defence, although it is striking in close up (see the image at the top of this post) it hides itself very well among other plants:

2019-05-23 11.42.16

An amazing discovery!  But what is this plant doing here?  The answer is that small-flowered catchfly is an annual species of disturbed areas, it requires soil to be turned over in order to allow its seeds to germinate from the soil seed bank.  The construction work on the site has involved moving around hundreds of tons of soil and this has provided ideal conditions for the plant and for many others that are associated with this kind of habitat.  The challenge now will be to work with the university’s estates department to decide on a management plan that involves regular rotovating of that area.  That shouldn’t be too hard, they are as keen to maximise the biodiversity of the campus as we are.

The natural world is full of surprises, especially “lost” species turning up unexpectedly.  Soil seed banks for some species can be very persistent, with seeds remaining dormant for decades or even hundreds of years until conditions are right for germination.  It’s very satisfying to be present at just the right time to see it happen!

To finish here’s a shot of the survey team, minus one member (Vivienne) who had to leave early; from left to right – Ryan, me, Brian, Susmita Aown, Duncan McCollin, Zoe, Janet Jackson:

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Final thoughts from the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen

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Despite my best efforts I’ve not been able to produce a daily post about the International Botanical Congress (IBC) in Shenzhen.  The days were just too busy: too many interesting people to talk to; too many great talks to see; too much cold beer to be drunk and tasty food to be eaten; and a too-comfortable bed to collapse into at the end of a long, long day.

It’s Sunday today, and the closing ceremony took place yesterday afternoon.  Speeches were made and thanks offered to our Chinese hosts.  It was a fitting end to what has been a truly remarkable conference, the like of which I’ve never previously experienced, and may never again.  It wasn’t just the scale of it – almost 7,000 delegates giving and attending hundreds of talks – but just the very positive buzz of all of these plant scientists determined to make a difference in some way, through their research and education and outreach work.  That’s been the main theme of this conference: that a healthy global population living in a safe and sustainable world is not possible without plants, and to achieve that we must take the plant sciences very, very seriously indeed.  Plants are the foundation of our civilization and the key to surviving the future.

Anyone who doubts that last sentence should have joined us the other day when we made a short visit to a local fruit and vegetable market.  Beautifully displayed on low stalls was botanical produce that reflected both thousands of years of Chinese cultivation and crop breeding, including food plants not very familiar in the west……

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IBC 46 Veg market

….together with the produce that’s only been a part of the Chinese diet for a few hundred years, or less, following its introduction from Europe and the Americas, including current staples such as chillies, squashes and potatoes:

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Global movements of food crops have enriched diets and supported the populations of entire countries: most of the fruit and vegetables that we eat in the UK, for instance, are not even native to Europe let alone the British Isles.

During this trip to the market I was able to add two new plant families to my life list of those I’ve eaten.  They were Sauruaceae (the leaves and rhizomes of Houttuynia cordata) and Portulacaceae (Portulaca oleracea being a common leaf vegetable in some parts of the world, but not the UK).  That brings my current total of pant families I’ve eaten to more than 90.

That theme of the importance of plants was codified by the launch at the IBC of the Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Sciences, on which the Natural History Museum’s Sandy Knapp has been an author; hopefully you can read the seven priorities in this image:

IBC 40 Shenzhen Declaration

The Shenzhen Declaration provides both a rallying call for plant scientists to convince their governments of the importance of their work, but also highlights how seriously China takes the whole concept of sustainable development.  It’s remarkable (but actually perfectly logical) that such a fast developing country should be the prime mover in the area of green sustainability.  Only time will tell if they are doing enough, at a pace that will make a difference.

There were a couple of awards made at the closing ceremony, including the first ever Shenzhen Award to Prof. Peter Raven, 81 years old and still going strong.  Earlier in the week a colleague introduced me to this giant of botany and evolutionary biology, and I got to shake his hand, feeling a bit awe struck I have to admit!

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The Engler Medal went to Chinese botanist Prof. Hong Deyuan for his systematic work on paeonies and other Chinese plants:

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So, that’s it for another six years.  IBC 20 will be held in Rio in 2023; the Shenzhen Congress has set a high bar, but we’re sure that Brazil can match it!

IBC 39 Rio

Today I’m off to Fairy Lake Botanical Garden to do a bit of exploring with some colleagues, then I fly home tomorrow evening.  It’s been a wonderful trip but I’m looking forward to seeing my family, our cats, and how our garden has changed in the short time I’ve been away.  My sincerest thanks to all the friends and colleagues who have made this such a stimulating and extraordinary conference.  Especial thanks to our Chinese hosts who made us feel so welcome, and the IBC Awards Committee for providing me with an “Excellent Scholar” award to enable me to take part. Over and out from Shenzhen.

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6000 scientists can’t be wrong: the International Botanical Congress 2017

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A late afternoon flight from Heathrow got me to Beijing International Airport just in time for me to enjoy a nine hour delay in my connecting flight to Shenzhen in southern China.  I finally arrived at my hotel at 2:15am, exhausted and sweaty in the 30 degree night time heat.  The one consolation is the the hotel was short of rooms so upgraded me to a suite the size of a small city, with a shower like a tropical rainstorm.  Perfect to wash off the dirt of travelling before collapsing into bed.

Why am I here and why is the hotel short of rooms?  Because 6000 scientists have descended on Shenzhen for the 19th International Botanical Congress (IBC).  The IBC is a six-yearly event that rotates around the world; I attended in 1999 in St Louis and 2005 in Vienna, but missed Melbourne in 2011.  At this IBC I’m giving two talks, one at the beginning and one at the end of the conference.  More on that later in the week.

Six thousand botanists need a big conference venue and this morning, after a late breakfast, I strolled up to the convention centre where it’s being held.  It’s enormous, the scale of the thing is overwhelming.  I wandered around whilst they were getting ready for registration opening this afternoon and took some images on my phone.

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There are some fabulous displays of living plants, including this one at the main entrance:

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These are attracting pollinators: in 10 minutes I counted lots of honey bees, one butterfly, at least two species of wasps, and a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting flowers.  I only managed to photograph the first two though:

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On the way back to my hotel I gatecrashed an international turtle expo.  Who knew turtles were such a big thing in China….?

OK, that’s all for now: I have to head back to the convention centre to register, so I’ll leave you with the view I’m seeing from where I’m writing this.  Shenzhen is quite a place and I’ll write more about it later in the week:

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