Friday 14 December 2012

Hydnora africana

It's Hydnora africana! A kind of "living dead" plant. Because sometimes you just don't know what's under the earth until it breaks out and stinks the place up.

Clearly, this is no ordinary plant. What you see there is a flower... ain't it pretty! There simply aren't enough flowers with scaly skin, that's what I always say.

Image: David Keats via Flickr
You might wonder where the rest of it is. Where are the leaves, the stems... the green bits that catch the sun's light and turn it into sugars for energy and growth and vegetarians?

The truth is, there are none. H. africana is a parasite. Across much of the African continent it exists beneath the ground as a tangle of roots attached to the root system of Euphorbia plants. Euphorbias are more self-reliant, more hard-working, more... plant-like.

So H. africana just sucks the sugars from its veins.

It's a lot like a fungus, actually. And after a long time of slow growth, we finally see the fruits of their impertinent labour. It's a flower. But it's a lot like a mushroom! Specifically, it's like one of the "stink lantern" designs that some Stinkhorns use. And yes, H. africana stinks. It stinks of faeces.

Image: Charles Stirton via Flickr
I don't like that smell! But Dung Beetles love the stuff! Named after it, even. So off they go in search of the object of their stomach's desire, when they happen open this peculiar plant.

The thing to understand here is that when the flowers start off, those three fleshy slices are all attached at the top while the sides are connected by stringy fibres. The beetles push through those fibres but find it difficult to get out again. The flower even has downward facing hairs inside, like a Pitcher Plant, to ensure the beetles tumble ever deeper into the stench-pit.

As they descend, the beetles pick up pollen and hopefully deposit pollen from another H. africana to fertilise the proprietor. H. africana is a good host, providing some juicy snacks for the beetles to eat during their stay. And then, because these are beetles not bees, and even Dung Beetles enjoy variety in their diet, they set about eating the pollen and parts of the flower. H. africana simply has to have a LOT of pollen!

Image: Wikipedia
Soon enough those big slices of fleshy flower finally tear their bonds and fully open in all their dubious glory. The beetles are free! And immediately set about looking for some real dung. The flower waves goodbye and secretly hopes they get fooled all over again so that some of its pollen gets onto yet another H. africana.

Meanwhile the fruits develop. They're small, packed full of tens of thousands of tiny seeds and taste quite nice! All sorts of mammals and birds are partial to them and all will spread the seeds far and wide, hopefully near to a Euphorbia plant and, ironically enough, deposited in a little parcel of dung.


TexWisGirl said...

um, yeah. the smell... no thanks!

the first photo made me say, 'feed me, seymour!' :)

Joseph JG said...

Yeh! It really looks like it could take a bite out something!

Unknown said...

Thank you, sir for all this knowledge. Great work, seriously funny, heavy to the head, yet very light to the gut. Now i know a lot more about my fellow living beings dwelling the planet.

Joseph JG said...

Thanks a lot, glad you enjoyed it!