Perks of parasitic plants revealed

Mar 18, 2013 by Alex Peel
Perks of parasitic plants revealed

Parasitic plants, sworn enemy of many a farmer, can carry surprising benefits for wildlife, according to new research.

The study, published in New Phytologist, focuses on the partially parasitic plant, Rhinanthus Minor, commonly known as Yellow Rattle, whose destructive potential is well documented.

'Rhinanthus is a non-discriminate attacker,' says Dr Duncan Cameron of the University of Sheffield, one of the study's authors. 'It's like warfare in the soil but most of us have no idea what's going on down there.'

'If it comes across something that looks like a root, even if it's a twig, its own roots act like a hand to grab onto the host root and pull it apart.'

'It starts to suck water from the and steals its nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients. Essentially it hijacks the route system, it's really quite unpleasant.'

But Cameron and his UK team of researchers including former NERC-funded PhD student, Dr James Fisher, have discovered new perks to Rhinanthus, packaged in the leaves it drops as litter.

'Rhinanthus drops leaves that are full of nutrients, whereas normally plants withdraw the before they release the leaves,' says Cameron. 'This means that Rhinanthus produces very nutrient-rich litter.'

'We find that the litter from Rhinanthus improves in the soil and encourages a greater variety of life by supressing grasses and promoting herby .'

But if you're looking for a pristine patch of green grass, Rhinanthus might not be for you, warns Cameron.

'If you're after the perfect, mono-species lawn, then you would definitely want to yank it out,' he says. 'But if you're trying to restore a species-rich meadow then, depending on your soil and , you might want to leave it in.'

'Over the last couple of centuries we've lost 90 per cent of our grass meadows because people have been using on the land.'

'Introducing Rhinanthus could massively speed up the slow natural process of getting rid of that fertilizer and encourage biodiversity in our grasslands.'

Benefits for farmers

Previous research had relied heavily on pot experiments, examining what happened when you planted a Rhinanthus plant next to a host.

But the team wanted to make sure their experiments matched the reality of a grassy meadow as closely as possible.

'Most pot studies predicted Rhinanthus would be absolutely devastating, but when you get out into the field, that never seems to be the case,' says Cameron.

'We built meadows in the lab, making them as realistic as possible but controlling the litter input.'

The research could bring benefits for farmers, who are paid subsidies by the European Union to encourage a greater variety of life on their land.

Cameron and his team are now hoping to develop an online tool that land owners could use to see whether or not their meadows could benefit from Rhinanthus.

'A gardener or farmer could plug in some information about their soil and the species on their meadow, and then we could tell them what effect Rhinanthus is likely to have on their biodiversity,' he explains.

Explore further: New research uncovers brain circuit in fruit fly that detects anti-aphrodisiac

More information: Fisher, J. et al. Parasitic plant litter input: a novel indirect mechanism influencing plant community structure, New Phytologist, 2013, doi: 10.1111/nph.12144

Related Stories

Want bigger plants? Get to the root of the matter

Jun 30, 2012

Plant scientists have imaged and analyzed, for the first time, how a potted plant's roots are arranged in the soil as the plant develops. In this study, to be presented at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting on 30th ...

The more, the merrier: Mixing plant species for benefits

Oct 03, 2012

Researchers believe that the richness of plant species can boost primary production. But studies investigating the mechanisms behind positive plant biomass response to greater plant diversity have been lacking ...

Getting to the root of nutrient sensing

Jun 14, 2010

New research published by Cell Press in the June 15th issue of the journal Developmental Cell, reveals how plants modify their root architecture based on nutrient availability in the soil.

Recommended for you

Mitochondrial metagenomics: How '-omics' is saving wild bees

8 hours ago

Mitochondrial genome (mitogenome) database demonstrated its great value on detecting wild bees in UK farms via mitochondrial metagenomics pipeline, a new approach developed by scientists from the China National Genebank (CNGB), ...

Study shows grey squirrels are quick learners

Jul 06, 2015

They may be viewed by some as an invasive species or a commonplace pest of public parks, but a new study from the University of Exeter has shown that grey squirrels are actually quick learners capable of ...

Age and fertility in social insects

Jul 06, 2015

A new research unit coordinated at the University of Freiburg tackles the question of why the otherwise usual trade-off between fecundity and lifespan in multicellular organisms is not present in social insects ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 19, 2013
This means that Rhinanthus produces very nutrient-rich litter.

seems to conflict with

Introducing Rhinanthus could massively speed up the slow natural process of getting rid of that fertilizer

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.