Back to Africa with this entry, with a new taxon (and a new family) for Botany Photo of the Day! Pictured here are the densely haired fruits and shoots of Jateorhiza macrantha, a climbing liana of Africa’s tropical forests.
The Menispermaceae, or the moonseed family, has 68 genera representing over 400 different species (ref: The Plant List); none of these have been featured previously on Botany Photo of the Day. Many taxa of the Menispermaceae are noted for their chemical constituents and traditional uses. This includes a number of genera that provide the necessary alkaloids to make curare, the common name for a plant extract used to poison arrow tips by South and Central American peoples. At low doses, curare is a muscle relaxant. However, a high dose will cause the diaphragm to become paralyzed, resulting in death by asphyxiation.
This individual plant was photographed in the tropical basin of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but its range extends to nearby countries with similarly humid lowland habitat. Jateorhiza macrantha is a dioecious liana, a woody climber that gains support from other plants in the understory. The leaves are palmately-lobed and approximately as wide as they are long (~20cm or ~8 in.). Jateorhiza contains only 2 species, both formerly classified under the now-also-ditypic Chasmanthera (i.e., also containing only two species, or more precisely, two taxa of the lesser subsequent rank).
Jateorhiza macrantha is locally harvested and grown as a crop throughout its range, primarily for medicinal use. A research paper investigating the toxicological profile of this species cites its uses in treating “headache, dysmenorrhea, syphilis, female infertility, tuberculosis, abscesses and boils, [and] as wound dressing”. In evaluating the chemical constituents of Jateorhiza macrantha, the researchers advised caution for its further use in medicine due to some inherent toxic properties (despite some proven benefits). However, the fruits are eaten for their sweet flavour when ripe.
Although in completely different families, I can’t help but draw a similarity of this species to northwestern North America’s Oplopanax horridus (devil’s club). While devil’s club isn’t a liana, it’s also characterized by densely-haired stems, large leaves, red berries, medicinal uses, and wet habitat. Diving back into my memory of biology class, I’d loosely speculate that these similar properties may be examples of convergent evolution–or perhaps just coincidence!
For a depiction of the plant’s entire growth form or a close up of the berries, check out Bart Wursten’s other pictures in the Botany Photo of the Day Flickr pool; Bart has taken some of the best available photographs of this relatively-unknown species!
Science resource link (added by Daniel): Science Action! is a Canadian video contest in which university students share how science and engineering is improving the lives of people around them–why research matters! They are now in the public voting phase, where 25 of the 75 remaining videos will go on to the next round. In the final round, 15 of the videos will receive a cash prize and be featured as part of museum exhibits, science fairs and during Science Odyssey and Science Literacy Week. How do you vote? By watching the minute-long videos! Please have a look and learn about some of the research that is going on at Canadian universities.