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Dactylanthus taylorii

In grade school biology class we learned that plants use photosynthesis to manufacture their own food from light, water, and air.  In almost every familiar ecosystem, the plants are somewhere down there at the bottom, dutifully turning out food for every herbivore (and thereby ultimately for everything).  It makes the green kingdom seems so virtuous. The plants I wrote about this week as “underworld plants” are no exception–they provide us with nutrition, beauty, drugs, a way to get rid of lackluster emperors, even natural-looking color for unusually pallid shrimps! And it all comes from air, water, and sun.

However the grade school biology explanation does not provide a full picture.  There are indeed plants out there that do not pull their full weight.  Like a big dirty city, the plant kingdom has its own underworld filled with creepers and stranglers and suckers—and at the very bottom there are outright parasites.  Some plants do not “make their own food” and indeed do not contain chlorophyll at all.  They leach nourishment out of other vegetation.  One of the strangest and darkest of these parasitic plants is Dactylanthus taylorii, the Hades flower, which comes from the forest undergrowth of New Zealand.  Naming it after Hades might be unduly generous—the plant should probably be called the cancer flower.

Dactylanthus taylorii: close-up of male flowers (Photo by Helen Jonas)

Dactylanthus taylorii is the only species in the genus Dactylanthus and the taxonomical relationships of that family to other plants are anything but clear.  The Hades plant grows on the roots of various indigenous trees.  It has not roots and no leaves but is connected to its host via a stem.  The tree tissue where this stem attaches to the host becomes horribly distorted into a weird burl-like structure.  Plants can be male or female and they are most often pollinated by the lesser short-tailed bat, (Mystacina tuberculata) (a strange and evocative creature which the native Maori call by the name of “Pekapeka-tou-poto”).  The flowers produce a nectar which smells like mammalian sweat–which apparently attracts the bats which then carry pollen between male and female plants.

The Lesser Short-tailed Bat pollinating Dactylanthus taylorii

Like many parasites, the Hades flower is cryptic—it makes itself difficult to find.  Because of this characteristic, there are aspects of the flower’s life and lineage which remain unknown.  However the modern world does not seem to suit Dactylanthus taylorii : botanists estimate there are only a few thousand left in the wild.  The plant’s decline is exacerbated by the fact that collector’s value the freaky wooden excrescences which they create.  In the future the hades flower may indeed exist only in the hereafter.

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