May 1, 2008

Scientist Rediscovers Rare Parasitic Plant

A botanist from the Missouri Botanical Garden recently spotted a rare parasitic plant that hasn't been seen in more than 20 years.

St. Louis botanist George Yatskievych stumbled upon the plant in a pine oak forest in the mountains. The plant has a pine cone-shaped dense cluster of flowers and juicy celery-like stalks.

It's "weird and wonderful," says Yatskievych.

"I've always been interested in plants that don't conform to our preconceived notion of what a plant should be," he said. "Beauty is in the beholder's eye and this plant is wonderful in so many ways.

"You can't call it ugly, but on the other hand, I recognize it's not everyone's cup of tea."

The fleshy orange-brown plant hasn't been seen by scientists since it was first discovered by New York Botanical Garden botanist Wayt Thomas in Mexico in 1985.

The plant is a new species as well as a new genus because it cannot be grouped into any existing genera in the plant family Orbanchaceae.

Thomas carried a specimen of the plant with him back to his institution, but none of his colleagues were able to identify it, and it eventually went unrecognized because parasitic plants don't maintain color or structure well after drying.

"It sat around for a long, long time," Thomas said.

An Austrian botanist introduced Thomas to Yatskievych in 2005, who is writing text for the encyclopedic "Flora of North America," on the Orobanchaceae family of flowers, which he believed the Mexican plant was in. Plants in the family attach as parasites on the roots of host plants.

Yatskievych said these plants have discovered a way to "steal" their food, allowing them to survive in habitats that might otherwise be inhospitable.

Although the original location in the mountains west of Acapulco is now gone, scientists finally spotted a 60-foot tree that was host to the parasitic plant. It grew into a fleshy stem that had pushed 18 inches through rocky soil so it could flower.

Yatskievych will become the first botanist to name the rare plant. He hopes to use the Latin name for "little hermit of Mexico."

The plant is at risk of extinction as roads, logging and conversion to pasture destroy its habitat, Yatskievych said.

Yatskievych plans to present his findings this summer at a joint conference of the Botanical Society of America and the Canadian Botanical Society meeting in Vancouver, B.C.


On the Net:

Botany Without Borders Conference

Missouri Botanical Garden

Orobanchaceae - Wikipedia