Saturday, 28 September 2013

Forest Marbles

It's the middle of the Dry Season in northern Australia. Rain is sparse and forests and grasslands are tinder dry. This is the time of stress for the plants and animals. Few insects are about as indicated by our trapping activities. Cassowaries, Jungle Fowl and Brush Turkeys are hungry since there is little fruit and few flowers on the ground.

So it was a pleasure to discover something interesting. Forest Marbles, for lack of a better word- the formal name is Fungus Root but the plant is not a fungus and so the common name is misleading. They are fairly prominent on our property. Forest marbles, Balanophora fungosa, are flowering plants but they have no chlorophyll. Some 15 species are known in their family, the Balanophoraceae, occurring in SE Asia, Fiji and India.
These plants are parasitic on the roots of rainforest trees.
The little marbles measure about 20 mm and this pink structure is called a stalk. The shell-like pieces below the stalk are the leaves and the white appendages are the male flowers. Developing stalks are  in the background.
Here we see some leaves and male flower stalks. Female flowers are on the "marble" itself and appear here as fine sand grains.
These nubbins are really not the flowers. The flowers are actually between these buttons.
Flowers in between the buttons. These flowers are so small that they rank among the smallest flowers in the plant kingdom.
Above we see the female flowers fully open and receptive to pollen.
A ring of male flowers. Note the fleshy pink leaves below.
An individual male flower. The anthers are the papery structures and contain the pollen. The dead, brown structures are like "leaves" but they are really not leaves.
A dead male flower.
 Flowers and pollen are attractive to insects. Here we see ants feeding on sticky exudates of the female flowers.
This Springtail (Collembola) is probably feeding on pollen.
Although a few insects have been observed feeding on the Marbles, it seems they are not attractive to vertebrates. The turkeys, cassowaries and jungle fowl avoid the plants and there is no evidence of rat or bandicoot feeding either.

The plant has some medicinal uses. It has been used to cure internal haemorrhaging, piles and have a strong antioxidant quality.

2 comments:

Snail said...

It's that time of year again! Balanophora is an amazing plant. I haven't noticed any evidence of vertebrate nibbling either. I wonder if musky rat-kangaroos would have a go?

randomtruth said...

Amazing plant. Reminds me a tad of our Boschniakia and Hemitomes, but even weirder.