Parasitic plants!

Lining part of the water trail in Las Cruces, we discovered these strawberry-looking inflorescence from a Balanophoraceae, perhaps Helosis sp.—-a type of parasitic plant. The majority of the plant’s body is subterranean and parasitizes other plant roots. Tubercles on the stems grow into fruiting bodies likes those pictured here.

I introduce plants to my biology students with parasite plants to illustrate that not all plants are green things that “make their own food.” Instead, they’re a diverse group of multicellular eukaryotes characterized by a common (and complex) life cycle, a waxy cuticle, probably stomata for gas exchange, and almost certainly a unique common ancestry. Just look at the “distinguishing characteristics” of Balanophoraceae!

I’ve seen Western Coral Root (Corallorhiza maculata in Oregon), Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora in New York and Ohio), beech drop (Epifagus virginiana in Ohio), and mistletoes before—all parasitic groups. The Balanophoraceae (barnacle bodies) is the only family of plants I’ve seen that are all obligate parasites.

 

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