I know this isn’t the most impressive plant visually. In fact, it’s not much taller than 15cm (six inches). However, by placing it in context, I hope you’ll develop an appreciation for it.
Brent Hine, curator of UBC’s Alpine Garden [in 2005] stepped into my office a week or so ago to let me know that this little beauty was in full flower, and that he noticed it from 10m (thirty feet) away. Considering the size of the plant, you’ve probably concluded that he wasn’t seeing the plant. And he wasn’t–he was smelling it. If you were standing downwind with Brent that day, wafting into your nose would be a scent reminiscent of cow manure.
Needless to say, the pollinators for this plant are not hummingbirds or butterflies. Instead, the scent is an attractant to flies. The long, upright spike is part of the spadix. The visible portion is the producer of the foul scent, whereas further down the spadix, near ground level, are the actual, tightly-compressed fertile flowers (see here for a cross-section of one of the subspecies). Dr. Danny Beath, in an article on the International Aroid Society web site, goes into great detail on the pollination ecology of the Araceae.
Native to the rocky environments in the eastern Mediterranean, Biarum tenuifolium employs geocarpy, or the production of fruit at or below the ground surface. It is thought that this is a strategy to ensure seeds will not be dispersed far from the parent plant, as the favourable conditions for growth of new plants is highly localized–dispersing seed far beyond the parent may encounter unfavourable conditions and would be energetically wasteful. This phenomenon of limiting dispersal is termed atelechory, and it often occurs in plants of the desert or dry rocky areas.
This entry was Botany Photo of the Day’s contribution to the 38th edition of Tangled Bank, a periodic collection of online science writing.
Botany resource link: Botanical Society of America’s Online Image Collection provides “educational images for instructional use”. If you need visual examples to help you learn botanical terminology, this site is an excellent reference.