Category Archives: Botany

RHS Level 3: Plant taxonomy, structure, and function

-3. Understand photosynthesis, respiration, water/solute relations in the plant and their relevance to horticulture.

3.1 Describe the process of photosynthesis.

Describe the structure of the chloroplast to include: stroma,thylakoids, grana.



Note: diagram is included for clarity, no mention of needing to know it.

A chloroplast is an organelle where photosynthesis takes place. The chloroplasts are filled with stroma, a colourless liquid, and with grana which are a stack of thylakoids. A thylakoid is a membrane bound compartment containing chlorophyll which absorbs sunlight for photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis begins in the grana and then continues in the stroma. Chloroplasts also contain starch grains and ribosomes.

Describe the process of photosynthesis: The interception of light by chlorophyll (wavelengths absorbed, PAR). The light dependent reaction (splitting of water to release oxygen and electrons, production of ATP and NADPH).


Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR)

Light wavelength is the distance between wave peaks that we perceive as colour. The range of wavelengths in photosynthesis is PAR, it is between 400 and 700nm (red+blue light). Chlorophyll absorbs this red and blue light, then each photon of light becomes excited which in turn excites an electron, which in turn excites another electron and so on, creating a chain of reactions known as the electron transport chain.

dependent and independent


Light dependent

  • In the thylakoid membranes,  light is absorbed by the chloroplasts.
  • Water (H2O) is broken down by electrons that are energized by the sunlight. The oxygen (O2) in the H2O is released as a waste product and the hydrogen (H) converts the NADP+ to NADPH.
  •  ADP (Adenosine Di-Phosphate) becomes ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate) by the addition of P (phosphorus). ATP is an energy molecule that is used to create the sugars in the next stage.

The light independent reaction/dark reaction (carbon dioxide fixation, use of ATP, NADPH and electrons from the light reaction to produce sugar (glucose)).

Light independent (aka Calvin cycle)

  • This happens in the stroma and the energized electrons from the light dependent reactions provide the energy for the following processes.
  • The NADPH become NADP again. The ATP becomes ADP +phosphate (P) again.
  • Carboyhydrate (C6 H12 O6) is formed from: Hydrogen (H) originally came from water and then stored as NADPH, released during the light independent reaction. Carbon (C) comes from the carbon dioxide (CO2) , and oxygen (O) which comes from water and air.

The light dependent stage feeds the light independent stage feeds and vice versa.

Significance of enzymes in photosynthesis: catalysts, temperature dependency.

Carbon fixation is catalysed by the enzymes RuBiSCo, and ATPase.

Enzymes have an optimum temperature and the higher and closer to that temperature the plant gets, the faster the enzyme works. However, above that temperature the enzymes slow down again, as they are denatured and finally they stop working.

ATPase catalyses the reaction to change ATP to ADP plus a phosphate ion, this releases energy for other chemical reactions (see above for light dependent and independent reactions for where this happens).

RuBiSCo is responsible for fixing carbon (C) in the light independent stage so that it can be converted to complex sugars (C6 H12 O6)

Specify differences in photosynthetic efficiency in: C3, C4 and CAM plants in outline using NAMED plant examples.


C3 – occurs in  85% of all plants, for example rice or Helianthus annuus. It’s slightly inefficient in that 25% of carbon fixation is lost due to RuBiSCo which causes an oxidation reaction, this is known as photorespiration – whereby oxygen reacts with the carbon to form carbon dioxide which escapes as gas.

C4 – occurs in 3% of all plants, most of which are angiosperms. It has evolved in plants growing in areas with low light or water. For example Zea mays, Cyperus rotundus. It has one extra step before the calvin cycle that reduces photorespiration and loss of carbon fixation. It does this by moving the process to a special part of the leaves that contain little oxygen (which is needed to fix the carbon), leaves with this area are known as Kranz leaves.

CAM – occurs Clusia spp., Sedum spp., some bromeliads, Orchids, and cacti. CAM plants (crassulacean acid metabolism) are very efficient in their use of water, an adaptation needed by xerophytic plants. In CAM plants the stoma are closed during the day, so that water cannot escape, however this also means that gases cannot enter or leave. During the night the stoma open, so that CO2 can enter. CO2 is needed during the day, so it is converted to malate at night and stored until needed.

3.2 Explain how the rate of photosynthesis can be manipulated.

Describe how the following factors influence the rate of photosynthesis and explain how they can be manipulated: Light: light intensity (light compensation point, light saturation point); supplementary and replacement lighting; choice of lamp in relation to wavelength. Carbon dioxide: levels; ventilation; CO2 enrichment methods. Temperature: temperature range, heating, shading, ventilation, damping down. Water and mineral nutrients: the need for adequate levels of irrigation and essential elements for chlorophyll formation (nitrogen, magnesium and iron).

The main limiting factors in photosynthesis are light, temperature and CO2 concentration.



Light compensation points and light saturation point

Light compensation point  – the points on the light curve when the rate of photosynthesis matches the rate of respiration.

Light saturation point – the point at which increasing the light levels no longer increase the photosynthesis rate.

Light limits the light dependent phase of photosynthesis, and that in turn stops the light-independent phase. As light intensity increases the rate of photosynthesis will increase given that other factors are sufficient. However, there is a point of light intensity at which chlorophyll is damaged and photosynthesis stops.

Supplemental light is usually used during the winter, but if growers want to maximise crops then it can be used all year round.

More info here on lighting for the greenhouse.

Light can be supplemented with:

High Intensity Discharge Lamp (HID)s – either Metal Halide (MH) lamps or High-pressure sodium lamps (HPS).

All HIDs are good at lighting a large area without taking up much space. This is important, because lamps that take up a large area will block natural sunlight when the lamps aren’t switched on. HIDs generate a lot of heat, which is an advantage in the winter, but potentially a problem in summer.

MH – create white light, and this is better for some crops.

HPS – create yellow/orange light. They are more efficient and last 3x longer than MH

Fluorescents – cover a large area, more efficient than HIDs. The light wavelength is the least effective for photosynthesis. Inexpensive, widely available and don’t generate so much heat. However, the light is not as intense as HIDs and the units are large, so block out the sun.

LEDs – these have become more popular recently. They are long lasting and give off the least heat. They have a similar spectrum to sunlight, with the highest wavelength in red and blue light, ideal for photosynthesis. They take up small area and are efficient to run. The initial cost is greater, although worth it in the long run.

Carbon Dioxide

Good article where much of this info comes from

CO2 is in the air at the very low percentage of 0.04%, and increasing this percentage increases photosynthesis rate, until a maximum level of carbon fixation is reached. Above 1% and it becomes toxic to plants, causing necrosis and malformation. It can also cause humans to become dizzy.

The simplest form of increasing CO2 is by having vents open, so that as plants use up CO2 it is replenished from otuside. Disadvantages are that levels won’t get higher than 0.04% and if it is too cold or windy outside, vents should not be open. The opposite issue occurs with artificially created CO2 – that air escapes, and air with lower CO2 gets in from outside.

CO2 is heavier than air, so must come from above.

Natural gas, propane or kerosene all give off Co2, but also heat (which may be an advantage, but not automatically so). If fuels happen to be contaminated, then that can harm the plants. They also generate moisture. Both moisture and heat may lead to moulds growing on plants (botrytis)

Propane gas burners – CO2 generators, good for larger areas.

Paraffin heaters – for smaller areas.

Exhale bags filled with mycelium (fungus) give off CO2. These are a cheap, but not hugely effective method.

Liquid carbon dioxide – more expensive, but pure, doesn’t create heat or moisture and is more exact, with a timer and regulator. However, it requires special tank for storage. For smaller areas, simple canisters can be used.

Organic materials – eg manure, coir – give off CO2 while breaking down, this is a simpler way, requires no additional cost or machinery, but only lasts for a month, and can’t be regulated like a machine .


The light dependent stage of photosynthesis is not affected by temperature, but the light independent stage is. The rate of photosynthesis is driven by enzymes (catalysts to the reaction) which have an optimum temperature. The higher the temperature, the better the catalysts work, until they reach optimum.

The optimum temperature for enzymes is 25-35°C, minimum is 5°C max is 45°C. However, different plants have other temperature needs, so a plant is not automatically happier in that temperature range.

Increasing heat

Electric – cheaper to install than gas and requires less maintenance, but daily costs are higher. Also easier to control effectively.

Gas – cheaper to run than electricity.

Paraffin – requires ventilation to release the gases given off, only useful for small scale and crops that require low temperatures.

Ground source heat pumps – are more environmentally sustainable, but expensive to install.

Hot water pipes –requires a complex water system and a lot of water. This is usually considered the most efficient for large areas since the heat spreads evenly throughout the greenhouse.

Biofuel  – sustainable plant based fuels (although their production is harmful to the environment). Require less maintenance, but costly.

Another aspect to be considered when heating, is insulation so that heat is not lost.

Reducing heat

Damping down – a quick, cheap way of cooling a room, plus increasing humidity (depending on the plants, that may or may not be useful).

Shading can be used to reduce heat, but will also reduce sunlight, although if there is a danger of scorch, that is a good thing.

Here’s an article on ventilation and shading

Water and Mineral Nutrients

Note: there is nothing specified as to whether this means outside or inside irrigation, and both are quite different. Light and heat are usually only supplemented inside, so maybe it’s assumed this is the same for irrigation. For this reason, I will talk about watering inside, but include a few articles on outside irrigation, so you can decide for yourself.

Irrigation is essential in a protected environment, and necessary for crop maintenance even outside during dry periods.

Forms of irrigation:  overhead, drip, manual and capillary matting.

Overhead – sprinkler systems, not very efficient (water goes everywhere), all plants are watered the same, and not usually used with feed. Not used with plants in pots, only those on inside/outside beds or large crop areas.

Drip – pipes lead directly to plants (from a main hose). Very efficient and can be used with feed. However it is tricky to install and once installed it’s even more tricky to move the plants around. All plants will be watered the same.

Manual – slow, using labour, however it means that each plant can be watered according to its needs. Often used with feed, and the feed can also be changed part way through for different requirements.

Capillary matting – polythene mats, with an absorbant layer on the bottom and perforated layer on top. The mats are kept permanently saturated. Expensive to set up, but plants are never overwatered because they soak up what they need. Can’t be used with feed.


Nitrogen is a macro nutrient, common in most fertilisers. Levels of nitrogen are shown in the ratio N:P:K (N=nitrogen, P=phosphorus, K=potassium). For example a high nitrogen feed  would be 6:4:4. Magnesium and iron are micro nutrients and require more specialized fertilizers. Iron (Fe) is found in ferrous sulphate, usually a applied as a foliar feed. Magnesium (Mg) is found in epsom salts which will raise Mg without increasing pH, lime will increase Mg and alkalinity.

Article on how to add magnesium to soil

Article for outside irrigation

Article on soaker hose

3.3 Describe the processes of respiration. Structure of the mitochondrion to include: matrix, cristae. Describe aerobic respiration: Glycolysis (sugar (glucose) split to form pyruvate, production of ATP in the cytoplasm).

Aerobic Respiration

Aerobic respiration = glucose breaking down to CO2 +H2O + 38 ATP (energy)

Note: I’ve included more detail than the syllabus requires, that only asks for the glycolysis part and the structure of the mitchondrion. I’ve included the rest for completeness and it may be useful to be aware of it.

1. Glycolysis – 1 molecule of glucose (6C) splits to form 2 molecules of pyruvate (3C). ATP is created, and NAD+ is converted to NADH. This occurs in the cytoplasm.

2. Pyruvate oxidation – The pyruvate is converted to acetyl CoA in the mitchondria matrix, CO2 and NADH is created.

3. Citric acid cycle/ krebs cycle – The acetyl CoA goes through chemical processes which result in ATP, NADH, FADH2 being created and CO2 released. This occurs in the mitochndrial matrix.

4.Oxidative phosphorylation – More ATP is produced in the mitochondria, NADH and FADH2 return to being NAD+ and FAD. Water is formed.

Energy output up to 38 ATP for EACH glucose molecule.


Mitochondrion – consists of two mebranes, an outer one that covers and contains the organelle, and an inner one that is folded over many times into cristae. The outer layer has pores to allow ions and small proteins through. The cristae is folded to create a large surface area. The matrix is a gel like fluid inside the cristae. The mitochondria also contain ribosomes (that syntehsize proteins), mitochondrial DNA and enzymes.

Anaerobic Respiration

Anaerobic respiration = glucose breaking down to ethanol (toxic) and CO2+ 2 ATP

This consists of the same first two stages, both glycolysis and pyruvate oxidation occur. However the next two stages do not happen in anaerobic respiration. Instead a process called fermenation occurs. In fermentation, zymase (an enzyme not used in aerobic respiration) is used to produce ethanol. Ethanol is toxic and will eventualy kill the plant. Anearobic respiration only produces two molecules of ATP, unlike aerobic respiration’s 38.

Anaerobic equation: C6H12O6 + zymase >> 2CO2+2C2H5OH + 2ATP released

Summary. Processes in  RED CAPITALS, products in blue lower case:

Glucose > GLYCOLOSIS > pyruvate > FERMENTATION > lactic acid + ethanol

Describe examples of horticultural situations leading to anaerobic respiration.

Anaerobic respiration is used intentionally when making alcohol, a natural by-product of anaerobic respiration in some plants. For example, barley is fermented to make beer.

Anaerobic respiration is also used by plants as a way of surviving in bad conditions, but it will eventually kill the plant. Some conditions that leads to this are:

  • Waterlogged or compacted soils in which oxygen can’t be accessed.
  • Fruits and vegetables continue to respire after picking. If packaged with too little oxygen, they will respire anaerobically, which causes spoiling.
  • Germinating seeds use anaerobic respiration because they don’t have the ability to take in oxygen yet.

3.4 Explain the movement of water and solutes through the plant.

Explain how water and solutes enter, move through, and leave the plant. To include: apoplast, symplast, endodermis, Casparian strip, transpirational pull, root pressure, capillary action, guttation.



How water enters and moves through the root:

  • Water is drawn into the root hairs by osmosis
  • Water moves through the cortex through the symplast pathway or the apoplast pathway
  • The apoplast pathway ­– water moves through the space outside the plasma membrane. Plant materials can diffuse freely through it, except when blocked – eg by the casparian strip in the roots. CO2 needs to be made soluble in the apoplast before it can travel through the symplast.
  • The symplast pathway – water moves through the cytoplasm around the vacuoles of adjacent cells.
  • Most water travels by the apoplastic pathway, but is then stopped by the casparian strip.
  • Water is pushed across the root by root pressure.

How water moves up the stem:

  • Transpirational pull –  because water evaporates from the surface of the leaves, more water moves to the surface to replace it, and more follows on behind.
  • Capillary action – this is when water can move upwards through a narrow tube despite gravity. It occurs because adhesion of water to the walls of the capillary is stronger than the cohesion between the water molecules. However, the cohesion is what keeps the water flowing.

Endodermis –   this is a single layer of cells around the cortex. It controls water movement into the plant.

Guttation – Transpiration does not usually occur at night because stomata are closed. This leads to a build up of pressure – root pressure – and causes droplets of water to appear on leaf tips or margins in the early morning – guttation. This happens most often in tropical climates.

Describe the significance of the following terms in relation to water movement in the plant: diffusion, osmosis, mass flow, capillarity, adhesion and cohesion.

Diffusion – this is the method by which oxygen in solution in the soil moves into roots, from high concentration to low. Also it enable carbon dioxide and oxygen to move in and out of the leaves through stoma.

Osmosis – this enables water to move into roots from a less concentrated solution (ie where there is more water) to a higher concentrated one. Osmosis is also how water moves across the leaves to the surface where it evaporates.

Mass flow – this is the movement of disolved nutrients through the phloem or water through the xylem. Nutrients are moved from the source to the sink (ie from where the nutrients are stored to where they are needed.) This direction changes throughout the year because sugar-needs change.

Capillarity (capillary action) – how water moves from the roots to the xylem (description above).

Adhesion – water molecules adhere to celluose molecules in walls of xylem

Cohesion – sticking together of water molecules so they form a continuous stream from leaves to roots.

Explain how environmental factors affect the rate of transpiration: temperature, water availability, relative humidity, wind speed.

  • An increase in atmospheric temperature leads to an increased rate of evaporation, decreased relative humidity outside the leaf and increased water potential gradient. Therefore  transpiration increases. (ie when it’s hot, moisture content around the leaf is reduced, so more water is drawn up the plant to replace it).
  • A decrease in water available to the plant leads to water stress which leads to closure of stomata therefore transpiration decreases.
  • A decrease in humidity leads to drier surroundings, gives a steeper water potential gradient leads to an increase in transpiration.
  • In still air, water that has transpired from a plant forms a vapour around the leaf and water potential gradient from inside to outside is slightly less. Transpiration decreases. (ie humidity increases around the leaf so more water is not drawn up the plant to replace it).

Describe the uptake and distribution of mineral nutrients in the plant: nutrients from soil solution/foliar feed, distribution in the xylem and phloem, active uptake against concentration gradient into cells by membrane carriers.

carrier proteins

Membrane carriers transporting proteins against the concentration gradient

Xylem transports water and mineral salts from the roots up to other parts of the plant, while phloem transports sucrose and amino acids between the leaves and other parts of the plant. Because the minerals need to move against the concentration gradient (ie from a low concentration to a high concentration) when moving from the soil to the root hairs, the plant uses active transport. This where membrane carriers in the membrane bind to the mineral on the soil side and then release it on the other side of the membrane inside the root.

Describe transport of sucrose in the phloem: mass flow hypothesis, phloem loading and unloading.


Mass flow hypothesis is the most likely explanation for how sap (sugar and water) moves through the phloem, but nobody is certain this theory is correct. The movement can be in either direction, unlike water moving through the xylem, which only moves from the roots and up the stem.

The sap moves from sugar sources (where sugar is stored) to sugar sinks (where sugar is needed), although where the sinks and sources are changes depending on need and time of year.

Mass flow hypothesis, the stages:

The movement of sap is called translocation.

  1. Phloem loading entails a sieve tube element picking up the sugar solution by active transport. This requires energy from ATP and is controlled by companion cells that are connected to the sieve tube elements.
  2. The sugar increases the concentration in the sap causing water to move into the sieve tube element from the xylem by osmosis.
  3. This creates pressure that pushes sap down the phloem to the sink.
  4. Once the sink is reached, the sugar is unloaded.
  5. The sap now has a lower concentration, so water leaves the phloem by osmosis, lowering the turgor pressure and stopping the movement.
  6. That water is drawn into the xylem by transpirational pull.

Describe the concept of sources and sinks in relation to: plant organs; seasonal changes.

During the growing season (spring, summer) the roots are sugar sources and the growing points are sugar sinks, because the leaves need sugar to grow. During dormancy, the leaves become the sugar source and the roots become the sinks, as sugar is stored.

3.5 Explain the interrelationships between photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration and describe their control in horticultural situations.

Describe how photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration are interrelated when optimising plant yield and/or quality in the following horticultural situations: outdoor planting; intensive glasshouse production; post harvest storage (manipulation of temperature and water loss, controlled and modified atmospheres, climacteric/non climacteric behaviour).

Outdoor planting:  light and carbon dioxide can’t be controlled in outside planting (but are free) water can be added. Transpiration is increased by high winds, high temperature, low humidity and light levels. Wide spacing of plants lowers humidity and consequently increases transpiration, it can also increase access of sunlight to plants. To maximise photosynthesis, plants need positioning in the ideal sunlinght for those plants (some plants prefer shade).

Intensive glasshouse production: carbon dioxide is usually the limiting factor (ie what limits photosynthesis), water must be supplied and light can be increased.

It’s possible to increase CO2 during the day (especially in the case of C3 plants). Humidity can be increased to reduce transpiration (to avoid wilting), but excess humidity can cause botrytis or other fungi to grow. Spacing plants further apart increases photosynthesis, by allowing them access to more light. However, this also increases transpiration, because the water can evaporate more easily, so more water will be needed required.

Post harvest storage: the ideal conditions to prolong storage life is a low temperature and O2 levels, and high CO2, this is to reduce respiration (respiration increases when temps and oxygen levels are high). Fruits transpire after harvest, but without connection to the plant, they can no longer replace that water, so humidity must be kept high to reduce transpiration. However, if too high humidity will encourage the growth of botrytis (mould).

So increasing CO2, decreasing O2, keeping the temperature cool, with humidity not too high or low maintains a good quality of fruit.

Modified atmosphere means the fruit product is sealed, but not manipulated.

In a controlled atmosphere the atmosphere is constantly monitored and adapted.

The effects of ethylene/nitrogen levels and humidity on fruit storage – ethylene starts the fruit ripening process and as the fruit ripens, more is produced which speeds up the process.

Climacteric – some fruits and vegetable continue to ripen after harvest, these are climacteric. Climacteric fruits are often picked before fully ripe, so they can store for longer and then ethylene is controlled.

Non climacteric fruits don’t ripen once picked, so must be picked at the ideal stage to eat.

Article on fruit storage

Good PDF on water loss.

Good article on respiration in fruits

3.6 Explain how plants are adapted to different habitats.

Explain how plants are adapted for: low light levels (shade plants – to include differences in leaf surface area, chlorophyll density, palisade layer); anaerobic conditions (bog plants – to include aerenchyma, pneumatophores); reduced water supply (xerophytes – to include xeromorphic adaptations in Pinus). To include ONE NAMED plant example for EACH adaptation.

Low light levels

Sun and shade leaves can exist within the same plant.


Codiaeum variegatum

Red/purple chlorophyll – to absorb different frequency of light, eg Codiaeum variegatum.

Broader, thinner leaves – to catch more sunlight, eg Monstera deliciosa.

Shade leaves – horizontal leaves; low saturation point; low compensation point; less rubsico produced, more chlorophyll; photosynthesis is limited.




Anaerobic Conditions

Aerenchyma – spaces or air channels in leaves, stems and roots that allows exchange of gases between shoot and root eg in Phaseolus vulgaris.

Pneumataphores – special aerial  roots, either grow down from stem or up from typical roots, they move air from where the plant can access it to where it is needed. Surface is covered in lenticels eg Black mangrove, Avicennia germinans.

Adapted stomata – that can discharge excess water through guttation eg Zantedeschia aethiopica

Carnivorous plants  trap insects for nitrogen which are unavailable in waterlogged soil. eg Drosera spp.

Prop roots for stability eg Ficus elastica.

Other adaptations:

  • Excreting of excess salt eg Spartina.
  • Capable of growing in acidic conditions eg Sphagnum.




Hairy leaves to reduce air flow and increase humidity


Hairy stems – to reduce air flow eg Opuntia erinacea

Spines instead of leaves – to reduce surface area and therefore transpiration. eg Opuntia chlorotica

Increased thickness of cuticle – a thick, waxy surface to the leaf eg Lophophora williamsii


Leaves reduced to spines and thick stems for water storage

Water is stored in bulbs and fleshy stems – eg Saxifraga tridactylites

Other adaptations without examples: Fewer stomata, sunken stomata. Dormant during drought conditions

Xeromorphic adaptations in Pinus

  • Lateral root system with sinker roots – greater surface area to soak up water
  • Tightly assembled needle structure – slows air movement and evaporation
  • Needles covered with waxy cuticle to reduce transpiration



Latitudinal Diversity: my theory


Growing up in England I was fond of woods, but when I went to live in a cloud forest (which is a tropical rainforest in the mountains) in central America, three things stood out as massively different to the forests I knew in England.

  1. There was a huge variety of plants. In the UK, most woods have the same few trees and plants repeated – oaks, birches, sycamores and ash for the trees; bracken and brambles at ground level. In the cloud forest, almost no tree or ground level plant was repeated, to put it technically, it had a greater species diversity.
  2. The ecosystem was far more interactive than I was used to. Trees were laden with epiphytes, and there was barely a leaf without fungus, insects or a virus. It seemed that almost every plant surface had something else growing on it. In the UK, there are only occasional galls and nests, the odd bit of moss, and epiphytic plants are rare.
  3. The variety in colour, shape and habit of the cloud forest plants was huge, at every turn I uncovered new leaf shapes and colours, whereas in the UK there are mostly green leaves growing in a few different patterns. (Note that I am talking about native woods in the UK here, we import many different garden plants from other countries and those have a greater variety of shapes and colours)


The differences were so immense and fascinating, I started researching as soon as I was able to.

What I discovered is that there is higher diversity of species and greater number of species (species richness) the closer to the equator you get. This is known as the latitudinal diversity gradient.

Science hasn’t quite explained it yet, but there are theories, I also have my own which I want to share. I’ve not come across anyone suggesting the same explanation, although the chances someone has, somewhere.


An aroid flower in Ecuador

The Facts

  • The greatest number of species for the major taxa – flowering plants, ferns, mammals, birds, reptiles, fresh water fish, amphibians, insects and snails – are in the tropics.
  • Species diversity and richness increase as you travel towards the equator.

For example: The 1950s doc ‘Evolution in the Tropics’ by Dobzhansky stated that Greenland had 56 species of birds, New York 195, Guatemala 469, Panama 1100 and Colombia 1395.

  • While tropical moist forests have the greatest diversity, even tropical savannahs and grasslands are more diverse than similar landscapes in temperate areas. This is especially important, because it suggests that the difference is not just due to terrain, but also latitude.
  • Recent research suggests that there are more fungi species in the tropics too. There isn’t enough known about diversity of bacteria species across the globe.

A pink-leaved climber growing within a green-leaved plant.

The Theories

There are a number of theories. They include factors such as the Ice Age, which affected the poles greatly and the tropics less so; the size of the tropics compared to other areas; and the higher levels of predation so that the fight to survive drives evolution. All of the theories are contested, a few can explain part of the difference, but not all. Some are circular, eg. there is greater species diversity, because there are more competitors for food sources.

For more detail try A Neotropical Companion by Kricher (where much of my info comes from) or Wikipedia which has a number of other theories too.


My Theory – it’s all about the small things

One notable difference about the equator is that there is little change in light and temperature. Where as in the UK the nights are very long in the winter and short in the summer, in Central America it gets dark at 5pm all year round. Temperatures are also more stable; slightly closer to the poles, the more temperatures can fluctuate from minus degrees in the winter to scorching heat in the summer. In the tropics, it’s pretty much hot all year round – or in high up cloud forests it’s consistently warm.

This lack of change makes some difference to larger animals and plants since they don’t need to go into dormancy they can grow and reproduce all year round. But their life cycles are still fairly slow, reproducing once a year or every few years. However, this difference is far more significant when it comes to very small organisms because their lifecycles are so much shorter, and they are more affected by changes in temperature and light. Those quick lifecycles mean they can mutate, adapt and evolve at far greater rates too.

So I believe that is why there is greater species richness, abundance and diversity of small organisms at the equator, but the difference is not so pronounced in larger organisms, so what else is a factor?

I believe that it is the species diversity of smaller organisms that directly causes the diversity in larger organisms through parasitism and symbiosis. Parasitism drives evolution and symbiosis aids survival.


First, some terminology


Parasites are usually insects, fungi, small plants or bacteria and are harmful to larger plants and animals, taking what they need without concern for the host. Organisms often evolve to protect themselves from threat. Parasites are a threat. The more threats, and the more varied the threats, the more animals and plants need to evolve to fight them. This is a common, but as yet unproved theory.

For example: If a plant has a mutation of hairy leaves that deter insects, then in an environment with many insects, that mutation is more likely to lead to the survival of that plant and the proliferation of the hairy-leaf gene.


Symbiosis between insects and fungi?


Symbiotic relationships tend to drive specialisation and help organisms to survive. Because the rainforest is so crowded, there is a constant battle for nutrients, space and light, so forming an alliance is beneficial. Through the generations, that alliance tends to become tighter and more exclusive. Symbiosis can be seen between many animals, plants, fungi and bacteria.

For example:  Ants forming a protective army inside an acacia tree and fighting off any animal that comes to eat it. Or aroid flowers that are only pollinated by one type of fly, so they evolve to give off a scent that attracts that specific fly (often rotting meat). In a crowded rainforest, if all plants targeted all insects, then many plants would get missed and never pollinated. Forming a symbiotic relationship is like putting an address on a letter, instead of flinging up in the air and hoping someone reads it.

The Small Things


Fungus in Ecuador

The ideal conditions for fungi to grow are warm moist ones. In the UK fungi live in the ground unseen, all year round. Then in autumn they produce fruiting bodies – ie the mushrooms that enable them to reproduce – that’s because the soil has warmed over the summer and there’s plenty of rain. In the tropics, the soil never cools, and humidity is constant, this means the reproductive phase can also continue all year round.




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Why fungi are important to larger organisms – fungi can be both beneficial and harmful to plants. Some fungi form a symbiotic relationship with them, growing on their roots and enabling them to take in nutrients that the plants would struggle to access on their own – these are known as mycorrhizal fungi. This harmoniuos relationship can take centuries to form. This is one reason why it’s so difficult to regrow plants on an area that has been de-forested, because the mycorrhizal fungi are no longer there, and the plants can’t access nutrients without them.

Fungi can also be parasitic and break down healthy wood. That’s what fungus does essentially, breaks stuff down, it’s a decomposer – that’s good when it’s breaking down dead matter to release the nutrients, but bad when it breaks down living material.



Either bacteria or insect galls

Like fungus, the ideal conditions for bacteria to grow is warmth and moisture, they are also sensitive to light changes. So, the equator, and especially the rainforest at the equator, has perfect conditions.

Why is bacteria important to larger organisms – like fungi, bacteria can be both good and bad for plants. Some bacteria work in a similar way to fungi, attaching to roots and breaking down nutrients (specifically nitrogen) into a form the plants can absorb. And, like fungi, bacteria can be harmful, causing diseases.





Insects also like warmth and wet. We know in the UK if there is a warm summer followed by a lot of rain, then the insects will increase. In the tropics, those are the constant conditions. Even in drier areas, the consistency of temperature is enough to maintain insect populations.

Why insects are important to larger organisms – insects can also be a blessing or a burden to plants. Leaf cutter ants will ravage a tree, defoliating it, but as described above, ants can protect trees too. The photo above shows a number of insect galls on plants, where parasitic insects alter how a plant grows to create their habitats.






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To put it simply…

According to my theory,

  • Smaller organisms thrive in stable environments where light and temperatures are fairly constant all year round.
  • The resulting high numbers and quick life cycle leads to greater opportunities for them to mutate and evolve.
  • Smaller organisms affect the number and diversity of larger organisms through parasitism and symbiosis.
  • Parasitism drives species richness, by forcing larger organisms to evolve to survive. Symbiosis aids survival and promotes specialisation.
  • So the numbers and diversity of larger organisms increases.



Mosses and lichen on a branch


Why don’t we ban Glyphosate? (Round Up)

Mendoza GL 2

Abandoned station as the plants reclaim…

There’s been a lot of publicity surrounding the herbicide Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Round Up. A recent court case determined that it can cause cancer. It has also been found in streams and some water supplies. The media have been vocal in the dangers of this terrible chemical, and people must be wondering: why hasn’t it been banned?

The problem is, there is pretty much no other effective herbicide to use.

As someone who’s worked for a number of gardening companies and in a number of large gardens, it’s been the only non-selective herbicide I’ve come across (non-selective means it kills all plants). However, I was aware a number of countries had banned it, so I was convinced there must be something else to use. It’s been bugging me for a while, so thought I’d do a bit of investigating.

Why Do We Need a Herbicide Anyway?


Plants can grow anywhere

Naturally, when most people think about banning herbicides, they worry about the patios and paths in their gardens, but it’s a little more serious than that. It’s not surprising people think of plants as mostly well-behaved organisms, because that is how we keep them, manicured and contained. But plants have been colonising land since long before animals ever did, and they’re very good at it. If all humans suddenly vanished, it would only be a few years before plants had made headway in reclaiming roads and buildings.

Many plants don’t need a nice flowerbed in order to grow, plenty don’t need soil at all.

How plants take over a hostile space

First moss and liverworts grow on bare rock, then when they die their decomposing leaves provide a little bit of soil for slightly bigger plants, which have more tenacious roots that ease into cracks. Then they die and create more soil. Soon there is enough soil for plants with tougher roots to sprout, and the cracks widen further. Once there’s a perfect environment for invasive weeds to take hold, it can be only a few months before waist high clumps are sprouting up in great numbers. And this can happen anywhere, on railway tracks, pavements, roads, even through walls.

Buddleia GL

Buddleia growing in railway arch walls

When it comes to invasive weeds, Buddleia (Buddleia davidii) and Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) are the biggest problems, and a problem that only Glyphosate solves. Whereas plants such as Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens grandulifera) and Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) tend to be confined to wet areas, Buddleia and knotweed can and do grow anywhere. Buddleia can grow in walls, knotweed can break through concrete. These plants are kept in check by Glyphosate, and whole companies exist to remove them. I studied for my spray certficate with a couple of guys whose sole job it was to inject Japanese Knotweed with Glyphosate. Without chemical intervention, these tough innovative plants would take over, and soon they would affect the running of trains, and damage buildings and roads. Pulling them out acheives little. Pull Buddleia out of a wall and you’ll damage the wall. Pull knotweed out of the ground and you’ll cause more shoots to sprout in their place like a Hydra from Greek mythology. A solution needs to be tough.

How Have Countries Banned Glyphosate?

Whenever trouble with Glyphosate raises its head, the media talks of countries which have banned it, so why can’t we? Looking deeper into this leads to some interesting caveats to the bans. Although 14 countries are reported as having bans, few have an outright ban.

Some countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands have restricted use (only for commercial use or to treat invasive weeds). Some are undergoing the slow process to find alternatives and intend a ban in a few years time (eg France). Bermuda started out with an outright ban, then relaxed the laws. Canada has banned it except in the case of invasive weeds.

A number of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have an outright ban. I haven’t been able to find out why, but maybe there is a large lower-wage workforce there, who will do the weeding by hand. There are certainly invasive weeds in the Middle East, although many are dependent on irrigation provided by humans, so that may be  a factor. (If anyone knows the reason, please email me at the address at the bottom of this blog and I’ll update).

Despite headlines calling for a ban, it looks like the solution is more complicated.

What are the alternatives?

Salt – this is often cited, however, Sodium Chlorate, a derivative of salt used as a herbicide, is banned in Europe. Using it on a few weeds in one garden isn’t such a big deal, but using large amounts on train tracks could be an environmental disaster. It depletes the ozone layer and is harmful to aquatic life. It’s also toxic to humans.

Vinegarwas used in Bristol to control weeds for a year. It was found to be not cost effective and not have such a long-lasting effect as Glyphosate. Personally, I’d be concerned at the environmental effect of throwing large quantities of vinegar around. Large quantities of anything that kills plants can cause environmental harm.

Handweeding – this is incredibly slow and isn’t practical on a large scale. It would mean shutting down roads and train tracks and new purpose-built machinery and a lot of cheap labour. Fine for private gardens though.

Mulching – useful in flower beds, but useless on paths and patios and won’t stop plants that grow out of walls or through buildings.

Steam weeding (sometimes called Heat Weeding) – this involves a machine that sprays out water at 99 degrees. I’ve used one, it is effective, although still in its infancy, so the machine is cumbersome and not very versatile yet. It’s being trialled mainly in Australia and Sweden. Given time, it’s one of the best options and there needs to be investment, plus government incentives to use it.

Fire – not setting fire to the weeds, but running a flame over them. Another good possibility. Not something I’ve used, but I can see how it would work on open ground. I don’t know the logistics of using it on buildings, but it’s a possible solution.

And Finally…

I’m concerned that this blog may come across like I’m resigned to chemical use and I really don’t want that. This is a beautiful world, we’ve been messing with it for a long time and we’re starting to feel the terrible consequences of that. So it’s time to grow up as a species and start taking better care of our surroundings. One way to do that is to reduce chemical use and work with nature in a sustainable and less intensive way. There will be ways to reduce and eventually get rid of Glyphosate, but in order to do that, we need to accept it’s not just a matter of banning one chemical and then moving onto another.

If anyone has any knowledge or ideas to add to this, then drop me a line at therealtetrapod at gmail dot com. Thank you!

Mendoza Glyphosate

Another picture of Mendoza station, just because…


How to Make a Rainbow Rose

My first thought on seeing one of these was, how do they do that? Well, I think I’ve figured it out…

Rainbow rose

Picture credit: my mum


I bought a rainbow rose for my mum on Mother’s Day, I guessed she’d be as curious as me to know how they make them. After having a think and looking at the base of the stem it became clear.

A normal, wrong-coloured rose is created by simply putting the end of the stem in food colouring (mixed with water), the plant then sucks it up as it would normal water, and the colour spreads throughout the stem, leaves and flowers.

Lengthways section through a rainbow rose

Lengthways section through a flower stem

cross section rainbow rose stem

Cross section through a flower stem showing different colours inject into the xylem

For a mutli-coloured rose it takes more precision, but the idea is the same. A different coloured dye is injected into each of the xylem tubes, these are around the edge of the stem and take water through the plant. Because the xylem tubes stretch from one end of the plant to the other, and do not merge, the food colouring remains separate, all the way to the petals, so that each petal is flooded with a different colour.

The evidence for this is small dots of colour around the edge of the cut stem, where the dye was injected in.

RHS Level 3: Plant taxonomy, structure, and function

  1. Understand the Plant Kingdom and the taxonomic hierarchy.

1.1 Describe the major groups of the Plant Kingdom.

List the main groups within bryophytes, pteridophytes, gymnosperms and angiosperms.

This is quite an archaic way of grouping plants. The kingdom Plantae is usually divided into 10 divisions, listed below, with the groups in the syllabus in bold. Gymnosperms consists of Pinophyta, Cycadophyta and Ginkgophyta. Angiosperms = Magnoliophyta:

  • Anthocerotophyta – hornworts
  • Marchantiophyta – liverworts
  • Bryophyta – mosses
  • Lycopodiophyta – club and spike-mosses
  • Pteridophyta – ferns and horsetails
  • Gnetophyta – 3 extant genera of woody plants
  • Cycadophyta – cycads
  • Ginkgophyta – Ginkgo
  • Pinophyta/Coniferophyta – conifers
  • Magnoliophyta – flowering plants

Plant Characteristics

Describe and compare the structural and reproductive characteristics of: mosses, ferns, conifers and flowering plants in relation to their adaptation to terrestrial life.


I’ve written about these four groups previously, the information about structural and reproductive characteristics is in the first two paragraphs of each blog

  1. Mosses
  2. Ferns
  3. Conifers
  4. Flowering Plants

Brief description of reproductive characteristics:

Bryophytes – have sporophyte and gametophyte stages. Gametophyte is dominant.

Pteridophytes – have sporophyte and gametophyte stages. Sporophyte is typical fern, gametophyte is small and rarely noticed.

Gymnosperm – have male and female cones. Male cones drop pollen which is carried by wind.

Angiosperm – have flowers that may be dioecious, monoecious or hermaphrodite. Usually wind or insect pollinated (but other methods of pollination exist).

1.2 Describe features of plant classification and nomenclature relevant to horticulture.

State the hierarchy of botanical units and explain how and when they are used.

To include: family, genus, species, subspecies, varietas, forma.

To include ONE NAMED plant example for EACH of the above terms showing how it is written.


Have the ending -aceae (many family names were recently changed to conform to this). Plant families are usually named after the biggest or most well known genus in that family. eg Euphorbiaceae, the family that the genus Euphorbia is in.


Genus is a subdivision of family. The genus of a plant is used as the first part of its binomial name, and is always capitalised. It should be written in italics (or underlined). eg Euphorbia.


Species is a subdivision of genus. The species of a plant is used as the second part of its binomial name and is never capitalised. It should be written in italics (or underlined). eg characias  (as in Euphorbia characias.)


Recommended abbreviation is subsp. but ssp. is sometimes used. Subspecies are written in small italics, but the word subsp. is not. A subdivision of species. Plants within different subspecies but within the same species are capable of interbreeding, but don’t due to geographical separation. eg Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii.


A subdivision of species, similar to subspecies (and the two terms often overlap) however, different varieties within a species may geographically overlap, unlike subspecies. Recommended abbreviation is var. Varieties are written in italics, but var. is not. eg Malva alcea var. fastigiata.


If a plant shows uncharacteristic appearance of its species (such as habit or colour) then it can be known as a different form. These differences are usually due to environmental reasons and won’t be passed to the next generation. Recommended abbreviation is f. The form is written in italics, but f. is not. eg Vinca minor f. alba.

Explain the meaning and use of the terms: cultivar, Group, trade designation (selling name), Plant Breeders’ Rights, interspecific, intergeneric and graft hybrids, naming authority.

To include ONE NAMED plant example for EACH of the above terms, showing how it is written.

Cultivar: This is short for ‘cultivated variety’ and refers to plants that have been bred for their characteristics. The names are often chosen as a selling point, for example using somebody’s name, making them a good present for people of the same name. eg Clematis ‘Willy’ (note the cultivar name is capitalized, in single quotes and not italicized. Because of the complexity of cross breeding across species, the species of a cultivar is only sometimes used.)

Group: If several cultivars are similar, they can be grouped together to make customer selection easier. eg Lilium Darkest Red Group (note the group is capitalized, not italicized, and not in quotes.)

Trade designation: Cultivar names cannot be legally protected. If a plant breeder wishes to keep sole legal rights to a plant, then he/she uses a trade name. This a commercial synonym that is legally protected. eg Rosa FASCINATION = Rosa ‘Poulmax’. (note: the writing method for ‘Fascination’ changes, sometimes it is in quotes, like a cultivar; other times it is in square brackets. The correct notation is all in capitals, not italicized, not in quotes, often in a different font.)

Plant Breeders’ Rights: Breeders using a Trade designation have Plant Breeders’ Rights which are recognised internationally. If you own the rights to a cultivar, it cannot be bred by anyone else without your permission. If somebody buys one specimen of your cultivar, you still have exclusive rights to all propagation material of that plant: seeds, cuttings etc.

Interspecific, intergeneric and graft hybrids: Unlike with animals, plants can be bred across species and genera. Plants of different genera can, in some cases, be grafted together, occasionally this will lead to a mixing of cells where the scion and the rootstock meet, this is not a true hybrid. It is also known as a graft chimaera.


  • Interspecific hybrid –  Mahonia × media (bred from Mahonia lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica, note the ‘x’ in the middle and new specific epithet.)
  • Intergeneric hybrid× Cupressocyparis leylandii (bred from Cupressus macrocarpa and Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, note the ‘x’ at the beginning and the genus which is a combination of the parents’).
  • Graft hybrid – +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, (a graft hybrid between Laburnum and Cytisus, note the ‘+’ at the start and genus which is a combination of the parents’.) This graft contains flowers of Laburnum and Cytisus (ie both yellow and purple) but also flowers that are a pinky colour, a mix of the two.

Naming authority: The International Cultivation Registration Authority is a naming authority, responsible for seeing that cultivar names are not duplicated.

State the significance of the ICN (The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants) formerly ICBN (International Code of Botanical Nomenclature) and the ICNCP (International Code for Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants) in the naming of plants.

The ICN (The International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants) A code that governs plant discoveries in the world – ensuring that plants aren’t given different names by different discoverers, or that already named plants aren’t given new names without reason.

International Code of Nomenclature website Contains complex set of rules to standardise naming and classification eg changing all plant families to end in -aceae, Compositae > Asteraceae.

ICNCP (International Code for Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants) – a code that governs the naming of newly created cultivars.

Cultivated Plant Code

(For more information about the latest ICNCP, there’s an interesting article on Gardening Wizards, here)

Explain the reasons for name changes: reclassification (scientific research, new discovery), changes in nomenclature (rule of priority), incorrect identification.

To include TWO NAMED plant examples for EACH.

Reclassification (scientific research, new discovery)

  1. With advances in DNA technology, African Acasias were found to not be related to Australian Acasias. Australian Acasias have kept their name, while African have become Vachellia or Senegalia.
  2. Coleus became Solenostemon, but was then found to be part of the Plectranthus genus. Plectranthus scutellarioides used to be Coleus blumei.

Rule of priority

This is where a plant is discovered to have been named previously, and its old name is found on record. When an existing name is discovered, the plant should revert to this name, but occasionally, if the new name is far more familiar it will be kept.

  1. Platanus ×acerifolia was the name of the London Plane, but this name was recorded in 1805 and it was discovered later that an earlier name of Platanus ×hispanica had been recorded in 1770. Therefore Platanus ×hispanica became the official name.
  2. Festuca subgenus Schedonorus was moved to the genus Lolium and its name became Lolium subgenus Schedonorus.

Incorrect identification

Sometimes a name change is due to a simple mistake, when one plant becomes mixed up with another.

  1. Archontophoenix cunninghamiana was for a long time incorrectly sold as Seaforthia elegans.
  2. Syzygium australe was often sold as Syzygium paniculatum

 Explain how plant names can indicate: plant origin, habitat, commemoration, colour, growth habit, leaf form.

To include TWO NAMED plant examples for EACH. 

It is often the plant species that indicates origin, colour etc, but not always (see below). The Latin will only refer to one characteristic (when Latin plant names were first used, botanists tried to include every characteristic, leading to ridiculously long names, then Linnaeus reduced it to two).

Plant origin: Mahonia japonica (Japan), Arum italicum (Italy)

Habitat: Clematis alpina (alpine plants), Pinus sylvestris (wood or forest)

Commemoration: Photinia fraseri (John Fraser1750-1811 nurseryman), Weigela (Christian Weigel 1749-1831 German botanist)

Growth: Briza maxima (large or largest), Vinca minor (smaller)

Habit: Cotoneaster horizontalis (growing horizontally), Phlomis fruticose (shrubby)

Leaf form: Acer palmatum (palmate leaves), Ilex aquifolium (pointed leaves)

Schachen Alpine Garden

landscape  3

Schachen Landscape

Open four months of the year and accessible only on foot, the Schachen Alpine Garden contains plants from all over the world. As can be seen in the photos, Schachen is often foggy, and despite being surrounded by the Alps, we barely saw them.

Alpine plants have a few conditions in common no matter where they are from; they have to cope with extreme cold (Schachen is often covered with snow), a short growing season, high winds, and a lack of rain. Alpine plants are mostly small and low growing, this enables them to flower in the short time when the conditions are favourable and keep below the high winds.

Anthyllis vulneraria 2

Anthyllis vulneraria


A number of plants had an ability to repel water and hold it in droplets above the leaves, I think this is a way of protecting them when covered in snow, stopping the leaves from being damaged. (see photos below)

Due to the mix of rock types on the mountain, the soil is very varied, with alkaline and acid soils side by side. This means that acid loving and alkaline loving plants that would never normally grow together, do. For example, this wild Clematis alpina (alkaline) and pine tree (acid). (see below)

Clematis and pine

Clematis alpina growing on a pine

Many of the pine trees on the mountain are growing right out of the rock (see photos below). In autumn animals bury seeds in the rock to serve as food stores for the winter. Many of these seeds are forgotten, and then germinate.

The photo below is of an unusually shaped Campanula, nothing like the normal bell-shaped flower. Because of its shape it is known as devil’s claw.


Devil’s Claw Campanula

Cows feed on the vegetation on the mountain. As it gets warmer, and the cows eat all the vegetation lower down, they are moved up higher. This can cause problems, because the cows will eat almost everything but Rheum (a genus containing rhubarb) because it is poisonous. As a result, the Rheum starts to take over, so there is a problem with this turning the mountain landscape into a monoculture. Rheum is the large-leaved plant in the photo below.

Mosses and lichens were in abundance in Schachen.

lichen 6

Lichen growing on pine tree

Wild orchids grew on the mountain also.

My favourite two photos from the trip:


Thistle flower


Red spotted bug

landscape  5.JPG

Schachen Alpine Garden



Plant Families: Araceae (aka Aroids or Arums)

Zantedeschia Inflorescence

Zantedeschia Inflorescence

A Few Basic Facts

  • Aroids are monocots in the family Araceae (aka arum family), in the order Alismatales. Most other families in this order contain tropical or aquatic plants, eg Hydrocharis and Saggitaria.
  • Araceae has 104-107 genera. The largest genus is Anthurium with over 700 species.
  • Location: Latin American tropical regions have the greatest diversity of aroids, however, they can also be found in Asia and Europe. Australia has only one endemic species – Gymnostachys.
  • Habitat: Aroids can be aquatic (water), epiphytic (air) and terrestrial (ground). Most are tropical, but there are also arid and cold loving aroids.
  • Distinctive features: All have an inflorescence (a structure containing a group of smaller flowers) which consists of a spadix (always) and a spathe (sometimes).

Aroid Flowers

  • Aroids can be hermaphrodite (each flower is both male and female), monoecious (male and female flowers on the same spadix) or dioecious (male and female flowers on completely different plants).
  • This family contains one of the largest flowers (Amorphophallus titanium, the titan arum) and the smallest (Wolffia, duckweed).
  • Some aroid leaf and inflorescence shapes:
Aroid Leaf Shapes

Aroid Leaf Shapes


Aroid Leaves


Aroid Fruits


Like many tropical families, aroids have evolved a number of adaptations to stay healthy and propagate. Some examples of adaptation:

  • The spathe protects the flowers and in some cases is used to trap insects for pollination. It is not a petal, but a modified leaf. Many spathes turn green and photosynthesize after flowering has finished.
  • Aroids have different types of roots adapted to their purpose. They have different adventitious roots  for climbing, attaching to rocks or taking in water.
  • Many tropical species have shiny leaves to deter the mosses and lichens that grow in abundance in the rainforest.
  • Smell is used by many species to attract pollinators. The smell of rotting meat, fungi and excrement is used for flies and beetles. Fragrant scents are used to attract bees.
  • In many species the spadix actually heats up and can reach 25°C, even in near freezing conditions. This increases the release of smells to attract pollinators. The heat also makes visiting insects more active.
  • Aroids that want to attract flies and beetles often have a warty, hairy, twisted appearance, with dark colours. This is to mimic the effect of dead animals, fungi or excrement.
  • In some species, leaves may change shape from juvenility to adulthood – changing from variegated to unvariegated, pale red to green, or altering the number of lobes of the leaf. Colour change may deter animals from feasting on the fresh young leaves by making them look less leaf-like.
  • Most species in Araceae have tubers or rhizomes, this means a damaged plant has the food storage and ability to grow new shoots from many points beneath the ground. Some aroids have other means of vegetatively propagating themselves, such as bubils and offsets.
  • A number of aroids are poisonous, some are edible. Aroids have evolved poisons in some species as protection. Those that are edible did not evolve to be eaten by us, rather we have evolved to be able to eat certain plants.



Male and Female Flowers

Because many aroids are monoecious there is a danger of self-pollination. While self-pollination is easy (a guaranteed fertilisation), it leads to less genetic variety and less ability to adapt to changes in the environment. Aroids are particularly variable plants, in one small area of the Thai Peninsula 22 distinct varieties of the plant Aglaonaemia nitidum f. curtisii were found. However, in order to achieve this variation, the plant needs to cross pollinate reliably. It does this by being protogynous, meaning the female flowers on an inflorescence ripen first and then later male flowers produce pollen.

The Generic Process for Monoecious Aroids

A beetle, fly or bee (hopefully covered in pollen) is attracted by the scent given off by the heated spadix. The insect flies around inside the spathe, lands on the slippery surface and falls into the gap between the spadix and spathe. At this point only the female flowers are mature, and the  insect, made more active by heat from the spadix, moves about bumping into the flowers and depositing the pollen. Now, the insect has fulfilled the first part of its function, the aroid would like it to pick up pollen from the male flowers. However, the male flowers will not ripen for a day or so yet, so the insect needs to be held hostage. The slippery spathe ensures that the insect can’t escape, it is given sustenance in the form of nectar. Once the male flowers are ready and producing pollen, the slippery surface of the spathe breaks down, allowing the insect to escape. As it flies away it bumps into the male flowers, picking up more pollen to take to the next plant of the same species that it comes to.

Two Specific Examples of Monoecious Reproduction

Philodendron auminatissimum: Sometimes the pollinating insect can outstay its welcome, perhaps damaging flowers or laying eggs. This Philodendron has overcome the problem by shrinking the spathe after the male flowers have become active. This means that the beetle must leave or become crushed.

Arum nigrum: This arum doesn’t trap visiting flies, it merely confuses them. The hood of the spathe hangs over the spadix, obscuring the  sunlight, and there are translucent marking in the base of the spathe. When a visiting fly tries to escape, it heads for the light, but this just guides it deeper into the spathe. This leads to panicked and more active movement, ensuring pollination.

Arum nigrum

Arum nigrum

Reproduction in Other Aroids

In dioecious aroids the female flowers are found on a different plant to the male flowers, so a genetic mix is guaranteed. Not many aroids are dioecious, but a few species of Arisaema are.

A few aroids are even paradioecious and change gender to suit circumstances.

Hermaphrodite aroids are similar to monoecious ones, the male and female parts on each flower mature at different times so self pollination cannot occur.



For the most part, arid aroids have not evolved the typical shrunken leaves and thickened cuticle of other desert plants. Instead they tend to grow under trees and bushes and at the base of rocks where a damp, shady microclimate allows them to survive. They have unusually lush foliage for arid plants. This would make them a target for being eaten, but they have dealt with this by producing harsh toxins and needles of calcium oxalate that pierce and poison the throats of animals. Animals know to stay well clear of aroids.

Some Examples

Dead Horse Arum

Heliocodicerous muscivorus

Heliocodicerous muscivorus: This is called the dead horse arum. It has an inflorescence 35cm long and wide. It grows in the shelter of rocks on a few islands on the Mediterranean. It is pollinated by either flies or beetles and grows where sea birds have their colonies at nesting time. Sea birds live in a mess of rotting fish and eggs, dead chicks and excrement, which attracts the flies/beetles. The arum must then compete with the smell of these, in order to attract those same insects for pollination. It mimics the dead not only in smell, but also by looking like the corpse of part of a horse, complete with tail. Visiting insects find themselves falling into where the ‘tail’ is and becoming trapped by the slippery walls. Many insects lay their eggs inside, although any maggots that hatch will likely starve to death. The insects are held for two to three days and are fed by nectar.

Note: It’s worth looking at photos of the dead horse arum, my painting doesn’t really do it justice.

Sauromatum venosum: This is the called the voodoo lily because it has the ability to flower without soil or water, using only the energy stored as starch in the corm. It smells rotten.

Stylochaeton lancifolius: This aroid has flowers and fruits half buried in the ground. I have been unable to find information about why this is. My suspicions are:

  1.  It is pollinated by animals that are close to the ground. This can be seen in Aspidistra flowers, pollinated by slugs and snails. The flowers grow on the ground, under the leaves.
  2. Being submerged provides a little protection, even if eaten or stepped on, the Stylochaeton still has half a flower remaining.
  3. The fruits are eaten by something small. Having eaten the fruit, the seeds can be dispersed in the faeces.
Stylochaeton lancifolia

Stylochaeton lancifolia



Rainforests are dense, shady, and teeming with aggressive life. Animals, plants, fungi and bacteria are locked in a constant arms race. Consequently aroids have developed strong poisons, shiny leaves and the ability to climb to cope with some of these problems. In the tropics, latitudinal diversity (a wider variety of organisms that occurs close to the equator) means that it may be many miles through dense forest between plants of the same species. For this reason, aroids use very strong, and often unpleasant, smells to attract the right kind of insect.

A tropical rainforest has distinct layers and aroids grow in each of these. There are terrestrial aroids growing in the ground and epiphytic ones that climb into the canopy.

Climbers and epiphytes have only aerial, adventitious roots. There are two types: those that are sensitive to light and make for dark crevices where they can grip, and those that are sensitive to gravity and hang down from the plant in order to soak up rain and humidity.

Terrestrial Examples

Deiffenbachia grows in the Americas, while Aglaonema is native to Asia, they are both highly variable, but virtually indistinguishable from one another. This is an example of convergent evolution. Both contain toxins as a defence; Deiffenbachia is commonly known as dumb cane, because the if eaten, it causes the throat to swell, so that speech is impossible.

Ag 2

Aglaonema and Deiffenbachia – both highly variable, but in similar ways


Amorphophallus: This is a genus of tropical and subtropical aroids, native to Asia, Africa and Australasia. They attract flies and beetles by giving off the smell of rotting meat. Unusually, Amorphophallus species only put out one leaf or one inflorescence at a time, one a year. The single leaf is highly divided.


Some Amorphophallus inflorescences


Single, highly divided leaf of Amorphophallus

Some species in this genus also have white patches on the stem, these are to mimic lichen growing on trees and serve to protect them from stampeding elephants. When tramping through the jungle elephants have learnt to avoid trees, which are usually covered in lichen. Amorphophallus would be very easily damaged by an elephant, so by looking a bit more like a tree they can fool the elephant into avoiding them.


Lichen mimicking stem

Epiphytic Examples



Monstera: These are one of the few plants to have holes in their leaves. Recent research shows that leaves with holes benefit in shady areas because the light coming through the trees is often dappled. By having holes in their leaves, Monstera cover a larger area with the same amount of leaf (so the same amount of energy used to make it) as a smaller leaf without holes. This allows the plant to take advantage of any sunlight that gets through the canopy.

Anthurium punctatum: This is an aroid from Ecuador. It has formed a symbiotic relationship with ants. It has nectaries away from the flowers because it is not trying to attract pollinators, but protectors. The ants set up home in the Anthurium and guard it from animals and insects that may eat it. However, in this Anthurium the ants are particularly aggressive and keep away pollinators also. The ants also secrete an antibiotic substance called myrmiacin, which is antibiotic and protects the ants from moulds and bacteria that might cause disease. However, this substance prevents pollen tube formation needed for the plant to be fertilised. These two barriers to pollination mean that the species can only propagate itself vegetatively.

Philodendron: This is a diverse genus. Plants can be epiphytic, hemiephytic or (occasionally) terrestrial. Hemiepiphytic means that the plant spends part of its life-cycle as an epiphyte (in the air). It may start off on the ground and then wind its way up a tree, then let its original roots die back. Or it may start as a seedling in the branches of a tree and a root will trail its way to the ground.

Philodendron bipinnatifidum

Philodendron bipinnatifidum

Temperate Woodland

Arisarum proboscideum

Arisarum proboscideum

Arisarum proboscideum: aka the mouse plant. This is a woodland aroid, native to Spain and Italy. It has flowers like little mice. The ‘tails’ of these give off a mushroomy odor, that attract fungus gnats for pollination. The flowers have a spongy white appendage inside the spadix that looks like a mushroom to complete the deception. Fungus gnats often lay their eggs in the flowers, although the maggots won’t live to adulthood.


As I have blogged before, plants never evolved much in water. This means that all aquatic plants have evolved on land and then evolved again to cope with life in water. Some problems faced are – damage to flowers and leaves due to water currents, lack of access to pollinators, water blocking out light, lack of oxygen (leading to rotting roots), and the heaviness of water (800 times as dense as air) putting pressure on foliage.

Some solutions to problems:

  • Aerenchyma:  these are gas filled cavities that improve buoyancy and oxygenation.
  • Fish shaped foliage: these offer less resistance to water currents, so less damage occurs.
  • Larger surface area in relation to volume: ie filmy leaves. This increases photosynthesis  eg Cryptocoryne
  • Roots: These are not needed to transport water, since it can be taken in by all parts of the plant. However, roots are used to anchor the plant and stopped it being carried away by currents. eg Jasarum steyermarkii
  • Reproduction: Many aquatic aroids find it easier to spread vegetatively rather than by flowering, in order to avoid flowering problems.

An Example

Pistia stratiotes 2.JPG

Pistia stratiotes: This is the only floating aquatic aroid, growing in swampy deltas in India and West Africa. It is adapted to staying still in fast moving currents, and has found the balance between sinking and blowing away.  The inner tissues have aerenchyma and the outer surfaces are ridged, velvety and with dense covering of hairs. This makes it unable to sink, and water repellent. Feathery roots act as an anchor. It has tiny flowers in a protective hairy spathe.

Pistias form a dense mat on the surface of the water, and can create mats of 15m wide. This makes Pistia something of a weed, causing problems to the ecosystem because the water underneath is deprived of light.

However, Pistia is not only harmful, some ecological benefits:

  • The darkness caused by the Pistia mats has led to the evolution of blind elephantnose fish, which live beneath the mats. They hunt by electricity and have well developed brains and learning abilities.
  • Birds and animals often make the floating island their home.
  • Pistia can purify stagnant water.


Note: outdoor photos are mostly taken in Ecuador and indoor photos mostly from Wisley Gardens.