Arxiu de la categoria: BOTANY

The least known biomes of Brazil

Brazil is one of the richest country of the world in terms of biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest, often known as the world’s lungs, is recognized as the world’s most diverse region. Is it really so? Brazil hides many more biomes as richer as the tropical rainforest, but much more unknown and with a high degree of threates that affect its conservation. In this post I will explain the main characteristics of the six Brazil biomes and I will review different crops that have been introduced into the country since historical times affecting the natural balance of its ecosystems, from sugar and coffee to soybeans.


In this post I will discuss the different biomes of Brazil. But what is a biome? It is a group of ecosystem with a common history and climate and therefore being characterized by the same animals and plants. Biome concept includes all living beings of a community but in practice biomes are defined by the vegetation general appearance. Is a unit of biological classification used to classify major geographic regions of the world. Thera are ten recognized biomes in the world: polar desert, tundra, taiga, temperate deciduous forest, laurel forest, rainforest, steppe, savannah, desert and Mediterranean.


Brazil is recognized as the country with largest biodiversity in the world, followed by China, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa. Brazil, according to recent scientific publications, is the country with the richest flora in the world, with 46,100 species of plants, fungi and algae described, 43% of them being endemic. This number increases every year since many Brazil biodiversity is still unknown. In fact it is estimated that 20,000 species have not been described yet. Botanists describe about 250 new species of plants every year in Brazil. So if you are taxonomist willing to contribute, there’s people lacking in Brazil!

Another amazing fact is that, 57% of the 8900 seed plant species in Brazil are endemic.


Nowadays, six different types of biomes are defined in Brazil: Amazon, Atlantic Forest, Cerrado, Caatinga, Pampa and Pantanal. This classification has little changed since the first attempt to classify the Brazilian vegetation in floristic domains elaborated by Martius in 1824, who gave names of Greek nymphs to the five domains detected. He chose the Nayades, nymphs of lakes, rivers and fountains to call the Amazon. For the cerrado, he took the Oreades, nymphs of the mountains, companions of Diana, the hunt Goddess. He named the Atlantic forest under the Dryades, the nymphs protective of oaks and trees in general. He considered pampas and araucarias forests under the Napeias dominion, nymphs of valleys and meadows and finally Hamadryades, nymphs protectors each one of a particular tree, were used to designate the caatinga.

Brazil is one of the few countries in the world including  two hotspots for the conservation of biodiversity: the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado.

Cattinga in the only biome exclusive from Brazil, tough other Cerrado-like savannahs are found in South America and the Atlnatic Forest, out from Brazil, is only found in North-East Argentina and East Paraguay.

Map with the distribution of the six brazilian biomes.


The Amazon basin area is the world’s largest forest and the most biodiverse biome in Brazil. It occupies almost 50% of the country and is seriously threatened due to the deforestation caused by logging industries and soybean crops. Currently it is estimated that 16% of the amazon rainforest is under anthropic pressure.

Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest (Source: Commons Wikimedia).

The origin of the Amazon diversity remains a mystery. Recent scientific studies explain that the rise of the Andes, which began at least 34 million years ago originated this biological richness. The Andes were formed by the collapse of the American tectonic plate under the Pacific oceanic plate. This geological process changed the wind regime in the area, affecting the rainfall patterns in the eastern side of the Andes. This also changed the Amazon River direction that before flew into the Pacific Ocean but due to this gemountain range rise was redirected to the Atlantic ocean.

These geological and climatic phenomena originated the formation of a large area of wetlands in the eastern part of the Andes, causing the appearance of many new species. The Amazon is an enclosed tropical rain forest with a sandy soil, poor in nutrients. The undergrowth is nonexistent and organisms are distributed along the canopy.

We found pantropical plant families like Fabaceae, Rubiaceae or Orchidaceae, and other of Amazonian origin; as Lecythidaceae (one of its most famous species is the Brazil nut tree, Bertholletia excelsa) or Vochysiaceae.

cadtanha pará
Bertholletia excelsa, the Brazil nut producer, typical from the Amazon rainforest (Source: Flickr and Commons Wikimedia).


Atlantic forest is a tropical forest covering the coastal region of Brazil and therefore it is characterized by humid winds coming from the sea and steep reliefs. It is composed of a variety of ecosystems because a high variety of altitudes, latitudes and therefore, climates ranging from semideciduous seasonal forests to open mountain fields and Araucaria’s forests in the south.

Araucaria forest, ecoregion considered in the  Atlantic forest domain in south Brazil (Source: Wikipedia).

 Although much more less known than the Amazon rainforest, the Atlantic forest has the largest diversity of angiosperms, pteridophytes and fungi in the country; with a very high level of endemism (50% of its species are exclusive) and is in a worst level of conservation. In fact until the arrival of the Europeans, it was the largest tropical forest worldwide. Today remains only 10% of its original length due to anthropogenic pressure. One of the first exploitation of this biome was the pau-brasil (Caesalpinia echinata), valued because of its wood and the red dye of its resin, that gave name to the country. Pau-Brasil was then followed by others human impacts as sugar cane and coffee cultivation and gold mining. But it was not until the twentieth century that the degradation of the environment worsened, given that the major economic and historical capitals like Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador are within its domain.

mata atl
Typical landscape of the Atlanic rainforest (Source: Commons Wikimedia).

However, we must be optimistic. The Atlantic Forest biome is the region with more conservation units in South America.


It is the second largest biome of South American covering 22% of Brazil.

It is considered the richest savannah in the world in terms of species number. It contains a high level of endemic species and it is considered one of the global hotspots in terms of biodiversity. Containing 11,627 species of plants (of which 40% are endemic) and 200 animal species, 137 of which are threatened to extinction.

Cerrado is in interior areas of Brazil with two well marked seasons (rain and dry season). It includes different types of habitats such as campo sujo, campo limpo or  cerradão. It is composed of small trees with deep roots and leaves with trichomes and an undergrowth composed of sedges and grasses. Cerrado soils are sandy and nutrient-poor with reddish colors featuring the high iron content.

Typical landscape of the Cerrado (Source: pixabay).

Vochysia and Qualea (Vochysiaceae) genera dominate the savannah landscape of the cerrado. Representatives of the Asteraceae, Fabaceae and Orchidaceae are the most frequent in terms of species number.

It is in second position in terms of degradation in Brazil recent decades. The origin of this destruction is the development of the agricultural industry: approximately 40% of soybean crops (Brazil is the largest producer of soybeans in the world) and 70% of beef are produced in cerrado areas. Half of the cerrado biome has been destroyed in only the past 50 years. Despite this risk only 8% of its area is legally protected.

Soybean monoculture inside the cerrado domain in Tocantins (Source: barres fotonatura).


It is the only exclusively Brazilian biome and occupies 11% of the country. Its name comes from a native language of Brazil, the Tupi-Guarani and means white forest. However, this biome is the most undervalued and little known because of its aridity.

The climate of the caatinga is semi arid and soils are stony. The vegetation is steppe and savannah like and is characterized by a great adaptation to aridity (xerophyte vegetation) often prickly. The caatinga trees lose their leaves during dry season, leaving a landscape full of whitish trunks.

Typical landscape of the Caatinga (Source: Commons Wikimedia).

Plant families predominating caatinga landscape are Cactaceae (Cereus, Melocactus or Pilosocereus genera are common), Bromeliaceae and Euphorbiaceae, but representatives from Asteraceae, Malvaceae and Poaceae can also been found. A typical native caatinga species is Juazeiro (Ziziphus joazeiro, Rhamnaceae).

Melocactus sp. (Cactaceae), a very comon genus in the caatinga (Source: barres fotonatura).

The caatinga conservation status is also critical. About 80% of the caatinga is already anthropizated. The main motive for this degradation is the food industry and mining.


Pampa is a biome that occupies a single state in Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul covering only 2% of the country. Pampa biome is also very well represented in Uruguay and northern Argentina. It includes a large diversity of landscapes, ranging from plains, mountains and rocky outcrops, but the more typical are grass fields with hills and isolated trees nearby water courses.

About 1,900 species of flowering plants have been catalogated in the Pampa, of which 450 are from the grass family (Poaceae) and 141 from Cyperaceae. Also Compositae (Asteraceae) and legumes (Fabaceae) species are frequent. In the areas of rocky outcrops we can found a large number of Cactaceae and Bromeliaceae.

Typical landscape of Pampa biome (Source: Flickr).

Regarding the fauna, there are up to 300 species of birds and 100 of mammals, with the emblematic species rhea, vicuña (South American camelids) or Cavia (rodents near the capybaras).

The pampas region has a very typical cultural heritage, shared with the pampas inhabitants of Argentina and Uruguay and developed by gaucho people.

The most developed economic activities are agriculture and livestock, which came along with Iberian colonization, displacing much of the native vegetation. According to estimates of habitat loss, in 2008 only 36% of the native vegetation remained . Only 3% of the pampa is protected under some form of conservation unit.


Pantanal biome is a flooded forest steppe occupying the alluvial plain of the Paraguay River and its tributaries. It is therefore a wet plain which floods during the rainy season, from November to April. These floods favor a high biodiversity. It occupies only 1.75% of Brazil and is therefore the less extensive biome in the country.

When floods occur, a lot of organic matter emerges, since water carries all traces of vegetation and decaying animals favoring soil fertilization.

Grasses fields (Poaceae) configure the typical landscape in Pantanal. Not flooded areas are occupied by shrubs and even trees. About 2,000 different species of plants have been cataloged in Pantanal. Some of the more representative are palms (Arecaceae) and aquatic macrophytes (Lentibularaceae, Nymphaeaceae, Pontederiaceae).

Victoria regia (Nymphaeaceae) in the pantanal from Mato Grosso state (Source: Flickr).

Pantanal contains a high diversity of fishes (263 species), amphibians (41 species), reptiles (113 species), birds (650 species) and mammals (132 species), being the hyacinth macaw, the alligator or the black jaguar its most emblematic species.

After the Amazon, it is the second most preserved biome in Brazil since 80% of its extension retains its native vegetation. However, human activity also has made a great impact, especially with farming activities. Fishing and cattle are the most developed economic activities in the Pantanal. Also the establishment of hydroelectric plants is threatening the ecological balance of the environment, because if the flooding regime is broken, wildlife will be affected.



Plants and animals can also live in marriage

When we think about the life of plants it is difficult to imagine without interaction with the animals, as they establish different symbiotic relationships day after day. These symbiotic relationships include all the herbivores, or in the contradictory way, all the carnivorous plants. But there are many other super important interactions between plants and animals, such as the relationships that allow them to help each other and to live together. So, this time I want to present mutualism between plants and animals.

And, what is mutualism? it is the relationship established between two organisms in which both benefit from living together, i.e., the two get a reward when they live with the other. This relationship increase their biological effectiveness (fitness), so there is a tendency to live always together.

According to this definition, both pollination and seed dispersal by animals are cases of mutualism. Let’s see.


Many plants are visited by animals seeking to feed on nectar, pollen or other sugars they produce in their flowers and, during this process, the animals carry pollen from one flower to others, allowing it reaches the stigma in a very effective way. Thus, the plant gets the benefit of fertilization with a lower cost of pollen production, which would be higher if it was dispersed through the air. And the animals, in exchange, obtain food. Therefore, a true relationship of mutualism is stablished between the two organisms.

 “Video:The Beauty of Pollination” – Super Soul Sunday – Oprah Winfrey Network (

The extreme mutualism occurs when the species evolve depending on the other organism, i.e., when there is coevolution. We define the coevolution such as these evolutionary adaptations that allow two or more organisms to establish a deep relationship of symbiosis, due that the evolutionary adaptations of one specie influence the evolutionary adaptations of another organism. For example, this occurs between various orchids and their pollinators, as is the well- known case of Darwin’s orchid. But there are many other plants that also have co-evolved with their pollinators, as a fig tree or cassava.

In no way, this should be confused with the trickery produced by some plants to their pollinators, that is, when they do not obtain any direct benefit. For example, some orchids can attract their pollinators through odours (pheromones) and their curious forms that resemble female pollinator, stimulating them to visit their flowers. The pollinators will be impregnated with pollen, which will be transported to other flowers due to the same trickery.

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) (Autnor: Bernard DUPONT, flickr).


The origin of seed dispersal by animals probably had occurred thanks to a co-evolutionary process between animals and mechanisms of seed dispersal in which both plants and animals obtain a profit. The most probably is that this process began in the Carboniferous (~ 300MA), as it is believed that some plants like cycads developed a false fleshy fruits that could be consumed by primitive reptiles that would act as seed dispersers. This process could have intensified the diversification of flowering plants (angiosperms), small mammals and birds during the Cretaceous (65-12MA).

The mutualism can occur in two ways within the seed dispersal by animals.

The first case is carried out by animals that eat seeds or fruits. These seeds or some parts of the fruits (diaspores) are expelled without being damaged, by defecation or regurgitation, allowing the seed germination. In this case, diaspores are carriers of rewards or lures that result very attractive to animals. That is the reason why fruits are usually fleshy, sweet and often have bright colours or emit scents to attract them.

For example, the red-eyed wattle (Acacia cyclops) produces seeds with elaiosomes (a very nutritive substance usually made of lipids) that are bigger than the own seed. This suppose an elevated energy cost to the plant, because it doesn’t only have to produce seeds, as it has to generate the award too. But in return, the rose-breasted or galah cockatoo (Eolophus roseicapillus) transports their seeds in long distances. Because when the galah cockatoo eats elaiosomes, it also ingest seeds which will be transported by its flight until they are expelled elsewhere.

On the left,  Galah  cockatoo (Eolophus roseicapillus) (Autnor: Richard Fisher, flickr) ; On the right, red-eyed wattle’s seeds (black) with the elaiosome (pink) ( Acacia cyclops) (Autnor: Sydney Oats, flickr).

And the other type of seed dispersal by animals that establishes a mutualistic relationship occurs when the seeds or fruits are collected by the animal in times of abundance and then are buried as a food storage to be used when needed. As long as not all seed will be eaten, some will be able to germinate.

A squirrel that is recollecting som nuts (Author: William Murphy, flickr)

But this has not finished yet, since there are other curious and less well-known examples that have somehow made that both animals and plants can live together in a perfect “marriage.” Let’s see examples:

Azteca and Cecropia

Plants of the genus Cecropia live in tropical rain forests of Central and South America and they are very big fighters. The strategy that allow them to grow quickly and capture sunlight, avoiding competition with other plants, resides in the strong relationship they have with Azteca ants. Plants provide nests to the ants, since their stems are normally hollow and with separations, allowing ants to inhabit inside. Furthermore, these plants also produce Müllerian bodies, which are small but very nutritive substances rich in glycogen that ants can eat. In return, the ants protect Cecropia from vines and lianas, allowing them to success as a pioneer plants.

Ant Plants: CecropiaAzteca Symbiosis (

Marcgravia and Bats

Few years ago, an interesting plant has been discovered in Cuba. This plant is pollinated by bats, and it has evolved giving rise to modified leaves that act as satellite dish for echolocation performed by these animals. That is, their shape allow bats to locate them quickly, so they can collect nectar more efficiently. And at the same time, bats also pollinate plants more efficiently, as these animals move very quickly each night to visit hundreds of flowers to feed.

Marcgravia (Author: Alex Popovkin, Bahia, Brazil, Flickr)

In general, we see that the life of plants depends largely on the life of animals, since they are connected in one way or another. All the interactions we have presented are part of an even larger set that make life a more complex and peculiar one, in which one’s life cannot be explained without the other’s life. For this reason, we can say that life of some animals and some plants resembles a marriage.



  • Notes from the Environmental Biology degree (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and the Master’s degree in Biodiversity (Universitat de Barcelona).
  • Bascompte, J. & Jordano, P. (2013) Mutualistic Networks (Chapter 1. Biodiversity and Plant-Animal Coevolution). Princeton University Press, pp 224.
  • Dansereau, P. (1957): Biogeography: an Ecological Perspective. The Ronald Press, New York., pp. 394.
  • Fenner M. & Thompson K. (2005). The Ecology of seeds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp. 250.
  • Font Quer, P. (1953): Diccionario de Botánica. Editorial Labor, Barcelona.
  • Izco, J., Barreno, E., Brugués, M., Costa, M., Devesa, J. A., Fernández, F., Gallardo, T., Llimona, X., Parada, C., Talavera, S. & Valdés, B. (2004) Botánica ªEdición. McGraw-Hill, pp. 906.
  • Murray D. R. (2012). Seed dispersal. Academy Press. 322 pp.
  • Tiffney B. (2004). Vertebrate dispersal of seed plants through time. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. 35:1-29.
  • Willis, K.J. & McElwain, J.C. (2014) The Evolution of Plants (second edition). Oxford University Press, pp. 424.
  • National Geographic (2011). Bats Drawn to Plant via “Echo Beacon”.

Photosynthesis and vegetal life

In this article we will talk about photosynthesis and about the first kinds of vegetal life. In the current systematic, the term plant fits primarily to terrestrial plants, while the term vegetal is an old term of Aristotelian connotation that refers to organisms with photosynthetic functions. But, as with everything, there are exceptions.

The term plant has existed for many years. But, previously, Aristotle was who classified the living organisms into three mainly groups:

  • Vegetals (vegetative soul): can perform nutrition and reproduction.
  • Animals (sensitive soul): nutrition, reproduction, perception, movement and desire.
  • Humans: can do all these things and also have the ability to reason.
Aristotle (Public domain)

This simplistic way of perceiving the living world has lasted for a long time, but has varied due to different studies by several authors like Linnaeus or Whittaker, among others.

A very current classification was proposed in 2012, The Revised Classification of Eukaryotes. J. Eukariot. Microbiol. 59 (5): 429-493; this one reveals a true tree of life.

image description
Sina ;. Adl, et al. (2012) The revised classification of Eukaryotes.  J Eukaryot Microbiol.; 59 (5): 429-493


Photosynthesis is a metabolic process that allows to use light energy to transform simple inorganic compounds into organic complexes. To do this, they need a number of photosynthetic pigments that capture these light rays and that through a series of chemical reactions allow to perform internal processes that give rise to organic compounds.

This nutritious option has been developed by many organisms in multiple groups and branches of the tree of life of eukaryotes. And among them appears  the Archaeplastida, the lineage of organisms that has led to land plants.

Terrestrial plants (Embryophyta) are easily definable, but what about the algae? Usually, they are defined as eukaryotic organisms living primarily in the aquatic environment and with a relatively simple organization, but this is not always true. For this reason, all Archaeplastida groups falling outside the concept of land plants (a small group within Archaeplastida) are called “algae“.

There are also photosynthetic prokaryotes into Eubacteria domain, and it is in these where photosynthesis is highly variable. While in eukaryotes is unique, oxygenic photosynthesis.

The Eubacteria domain is very broad, and among its branches there are up to 5 large groups of photosynthetic organisms: Chloroflexi, Firmicutes, Chlorobi, Proteobacteria and Cyanobacteria. The latter are the only eubacterial performing an oxygenic photosynthesis; with release of oxygen from water molecules and using hydrogen from water as electron donor. The rest performs an anoxygenic photosynthesis: the electron donor is sulfur or hydrogen sulfide and, during this process, oxigen is never released, since water rarely intervenes; which is why they are known as purple sulfur bacteria.

Photosynthesis is probably older than life itself. Oxygenic photosynthesis, which is tightly related to this group of bacteria, the cyanobacteria, probably occurs later. But it was crucial for the development of life on our planet, since transformed the atmosphere in a more oxygenated one and, due to this, life on Earth had become more diverse and has evolved.

Amazon, the lungs of the Earh (Author: Christian Cruzado; Flickr)


Cyanobacteria share pigments with terrestrial plants and other photosynthetic eukaryotes. These pigments are primarily chlorophylls a and b (the universal ones); c and d are only present in some groups. There are two more pigments that are univeral: carotenes, these ones act as antennas that transfer the captured energy to chlorophylls and also protect the reaction center against autoxidation, and phycobiliproteins (phycocyanin, phycoerythrin, etc.), which appear in both cyanobacteria and other eukaryotic groups photosynthetic and are responsible for capturing light energy.

But, why exist this variability of accessory pigments? because each pigment have a different absorption spectrum, and the fact to present different molecules allows to collect much better the wavelenght of sunlight; i.e., energy capture is much more efficient.

On the other hand, the anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria don’t present chlorophylls and, instead, have specific molecules of the prokaryotes, the bacteriochlorophylls.

Absorption spectrum of different pigments (Reference: York University)

Where are pigments located?

In the organisms with oxygenic photosynthesis, that is, in cyanobacteria and photosynthetic eukaryotes, pigments are located into complex structures. In cyanobacteria, there are various concentric flattened sacs called thylakoids in the peripheral cytoplasm, which are only surrounded by a membrane. And it is in the lumen of the thylakoid where pigments are located. In eukaryotes, however, we found chloroplasts, which are intracellular organelles full of thylakoids with at least two membranes and they are particular of photosynthetic eukaryotes. In these chloroplasts is where photosynthesis takes place. Both groups, therefore, perform oxygenic photosynthesis within the thylakoids; the difference is that in eukaryotes, the thylakoids are located into the chloroplasts.

Plant cells where we can see chloroplasts (Author: Kristian Peters – Fabelfroh)

On the other hand, in organisms with anoxygenic photosynthesis there are different options. The purple bacteria contain pigments in chromatophores, a kind of vesicles in the center or periphery of the cell. In contrast, the green bacteria (Chlorobi and Chloroflexi) present several flattened vesicles at the periphery of the cell, on the plasma membrane, where bacteriochlorophyll are located. In Heliobacterium, the pigment is attached to the inner surface of the plasma membrane. They are generally not complex structures, and often this structures have simple membranes.


The fossil evidence of the earliest photosynthetic organisms are the stromatolites (3.2 Ga ago). They are structures formed by overlapping thin layers of organisms together with their own calcium carbonate deposits. These occurs in shallow waters, in warm and well-lit seas. Although many seem straight columns, deviations are observed because they try to be oriented towards the sunlight to perform photosynthesis. In the past they had a crucial importance in building reefs-like formations and they also participated into the atmospheric composition changes. Currently, there are some which are still alive.

Stromatolites (Author:Alessandro, Flickr)


  • Notes from the Environmental Biology degree (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and the Master’s degree in Biodiversity (Universitat de Barcelona).
  • Font Quer, P. (1953): Diccionario de Botánica. Editorial Labor, Barcelona.
  • Izco, J., Barreno, E., Brugués, M., Costa, M., Devesa, J. A., Fernández, F., Gallardo, T., Llimona, X., Parada, C., Talavera, S. & Valdés, B. (2004) Botánica 2.ªEdición. McGraw-Hill, pp. 906.
  • Willis, K.J. & McElwain, J.C. (2014) The Evolution of Plants (second edition). Oxford University Press, 424 pp.


Daisies: they love me or love me not?

Daisy flowers (Compositae or Asteraceae family) are one of the most complex and evolutionated flowers in the world. In this article, we’ll pick off all the petals from the daisy flowers to understand how this special organ works.


The Asteraceae family is the largest family of flowering plants and one of the most worldwide distributed. There are about 25,000 species distributed in 1,100 genera, representing 10% of all plant species currently on earth  and they have a cosmopolitan distribution except the Antarctica.

Many Asteraceae are used on our daily routine. For example there are members of this family in our diet, such as lettuce (Lactuca sativa), chicory or escarole (Cichorium endivia), artichoke (Cynara scolymus) and sunflower (Helianthus annus). Also many species are used in traditional medicine as chamomile (Chamomilla recutita), echinacea (Echinaceae purpurea), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) or arnica (Arnica montana). They are also many Asteraceae species with horticultural importance, like daisies (Bellis perennis for example, but other species are called so), chrysanthemums (Leucanthemum sp.), marigolds (Calendula sp.) or Dahlias (Dahlia sp.).

img 1 compositae
Asteraceae species with different uses. A. Dahlia sp., b. Gira-sol (Helianthus annus), c. Arnica montana, d. Echinacea purpurea.


The flower of the Asteraceae species is called capitula and is not a typical flower because it is formed by several flowers grouped together to form a single flower-like structure to attract pollinators. This cluster of flowers imitating a simple flower is called inflorescence. Most Asteraceae present more than one capitula per branch and the way they are organized is structured in a special order. We can found capitulum structured in corimbes or racemes, for example. This structure arranging inflorescences is called a synflorescence.

Normally capitula contain two kinds of flowers: the ray or ligulate flowers and the disc flowers. All have five fused petals.

img 2 compositae
Ray flower (A), disc flower (B) and schema of the flowers organization in a typical Asteraceae capitula (C), extracted from Greenish (1920).

Ray flowers are usually female flowers, with two connate carpels in an inferior ovary. Their petals are zygomorphic (asymmetrical) and are characterised by the presence of a ligule, a part remembering the typical petal that we pluck off the daisy when playing the game.

Disc flowers are usually hermaphrodites and have a less showy actinomorphic (symmetric) tubular corolla. Disc flowers are in the center of the capitulum looking like small buttons.

The capitula described are the most common in Asteraceae, called heterogamous. The heterogamous capitula can be radiated, as the typical daisy or disciform when only have disc flowers, but the outermost flowers have a long filaments similars to ray flowers, such as in Centaurea sp.

 img 3 compositae

Heterogamous disciform capitula of Centaurea deusta in Croacia.

The homogamous capitula have a single type of flower, always hermaphroditic. The discoid homogamous capitula have only disc flowers, like thistles.

img 4 compositae
Discoid homogamous capitula of Cynara cardunculus.

The ligulate homogamous capitula have only ray flowers, like chicory (Cichorium intybus).

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Ligulate homogamous capitula of Cichorium intybus.


One of the most striking adaptations of the capitulum is that their flowers have different maturation times to avoid self-pollination. The flowers mature centripetally, from the outside in. That’s why we see the disk with o darker color on the inside.

img 6 compositae
Capitulum of Pericallis echinata, a Canarian endemic, where we can see the diferent degrees of disc flowers maduration.

The secondary pollen presentation is another capitulum adaptation, which is not exclusive from this family but a diagnostic character. The process makes that matured pollen is presented to the pollinators in a different structure from the anthers, the stigma of the pistil, in this case. The secondary pollen presentation occurs by a special adaptation of the anthers, that are fused (syngeneic stamens) forming a tube around the style. Thus, when the mature style is extended through this tube, pollen grains stick making pollen available to pollinators when the stigma reach the outside. This can actually happen because main Asteraceae flowers are proterandrous, i.e. the stamens mature before the style.

img 7 compositae
Secondary pollen presentation schema (Funk et al., 2009).

This capitulum basic structure has many variations creating many different capitula types. Although most species of Asteraceae are monoecious (we can found hermaphroditic flowers in the same individual) there are dioecious genus, like Baccharis, a genus from tropical South America, which have male and female individuals separately.

img 8 compositae
Female (left) and male (right) individuals of the dioecious Baccharis sp.

Very rarely, capitula have only a single flower, as in the case of Echinops, where single flowers are grouped in spherical capitula of second order.

img 9 compositae
Solitary flowers clustered in a second order capitulum of Echinops ritro.

There are another examples of secondary order capitulum, like the famous Edelweiss flower (Leontopodium alpinum). The edelweis flower is particularly interesting because it has densely hairy bracts (with many trichomes) around its discoid capitula acting as white “false” petals and reflecting the high radiation of the high mountains where they live.

img 10 compositae
Seconsary order capitula of edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum).

Rarely, capitulum are found alone at the stems apex, not forming synflorescences. This is the case of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) or Wunderlichia, one of the smallest genus of Asteraceae with six endemic species from Brazil with a really awkward look because of its tomentous indumentum and the lack of leaves when bloom.

img 11 compositae
Solitary capitulum of Wunderlichia mirabilis in Brazil.

Capitulum pollination is usually made by insects, especially butterflies, which are attracted by the petals color and the nectar, their sweet reward.

The fruit, which is called achene or cypsela in Asteraceae, is formed once the flowers have been fertilized. The cypselae are easy to recognize because many have appendices that look like bristles, awns or scales called pappus acting in wind dispersal.

img 12 compositae
Diversity of cypselae and pappus found in Asteraceae (Funk et al., 2005).

Now, we can maybe better understand why we can pluck a daisy striping a petals, each from a unique ray flower in the capitulum or why do we blow out so many seeds when we make a wish on a single dandelion flower.


  • Font Quer P (1953). Diccionario de Botánica. Ed. Labor.
  • Funk VA, Bayer RJ, Keeley S, Chan R, Watson L, Emeinholzer B, Schilling E, Panero JL., Baldwin BG, Garcia-Jacas N, Susanna A & Jansen RK (2005). Everywhere but antarctica: using a supertree to understand the diversity and distribution of the Compositae. Biologiske skrifter 55: 343-374.
  • Funk VA, Susanna A, Stuessy TF & Bayer RJ (2009). Systematics, evolution, and biogeography of Compositae. International association for plant taxonomy, Vienna, Austria.
  • Kadereit JW & Jeffrey C. (2007). The families and genera of vascular plants, vol. 8, Flowering Plants. Eudicots. Asterales. Springer, Berlin.


Alcoholic fermentation of plants through cultures

All cultures around the world have based their diet and culture in plants of their environment. So, each people way of cooking, dressing, building our house, healing or making instruments to create music is related to raw materials available: the plants of our landscape.

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Ethnobotany is the science that studies the cultural uses of vegetation over time and in this post I want to talk about a cultural use of plants spread around the cultures of the world: the production of alcoholic beverages through the process of fermentation and/or distillation of plants sweet juice.


The fermentation process is done by the yeast metabolism that produces energy from sugars. This is the way how these living beings produce their own energy in an anoxygenic environment; for this is called anaerobic metabolism. Other waste products of fermentation are carbon dioxide (CO2); that’s why we found gas in beers, for example, and of course, alcohol.

Culture plate with yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae (Foto: Wikimedia Comons)
Culture plate with yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae (Foto: Wikimedia Comons)

The fermentation has been used to preserve and enhance the flavors of a variety of foods throughout history, such as bread, yogurt, tofu, soy sauce or cheese (which have lost their alcohol).

The main responsible of this type of fermentation in the food industry is Saccharomyces cerevisae, although there are other yeast species and genera able to perform the alcoholic fermentation giving foods its distinctive taste.

The alcoholic distillation process is really distinct from fermentation. Distillation is a chemical process that separates the components of a liquid mixture by a heat source. The different components of a solution are separated in an alembic through evaporation and condensation according to their volatility. In the case of alcoholic beverages, distilled spirits are produced to obtain drinks with more alcohol, from juice of the fermented grain or fruit. For example, the brandy is distilled wine.

Alembic used to ditillate fluids (Foto: barresfotonatura)

So I invite you to take a journey through the world of spirits under this classification… All the continents have come to produce alcohol by this process? What do you think?


Among the beverages produced by alcohcolic fermentation in the Mediterranean, the wine is the most famous. Wine is a product of the fermentation of grape juice. The grapes come from vine (Vitis vinifera); a shrub native to the Caucasus and the Middle East that has also been used as a shade plant because it is a plant that climbs easily. There are over 10,000 varieties of grapes used to produce a wide range of wines. The wine art has been exported to other countries around the world with a Mediterranean climate, and therefore which can easily grow grapes, such as California, Chile, South Africa and Australia. The alcohol content of wine ranges from 10º to 14º.

To produce cava or champagne the sugars left in the wine bottle undergo a second fermentation (brut nature champagne). If sugars not coming from grapes are added to trigger this process then we are talking about brut or extra brut champagne. Then, yeast will begin the alcoholic fermentation again, producing dioxide carbonide and thus generating this drink typical bubbles.

Grape from Macabeu variety (Foto: barresfotonatura)

Another highly consumed beverage worldwide resulting from the metabolism of the yeast is beer, which is produced from the fermentation of barley (Hordeum vulgare) and finally adding hops (Humulus lupulus), which provides bitterness. The beer can be drunk hot or cold and its alcohol content varies from 2.5º to 11º. Currently, many different brands of beer mix different cereals in their fabrication (such as maize and rice) but do not be deceived, the original is made just with barley!

Female cones from hop plant (Cannabaceae) used to bitter beer and also to facilitate its conservation (Foto: Wikimedia Comons)

If we travel a little more further, exotic flavors of the east can also get drunk. Japan came to produce alcohol from rice (Oryza sativa), the most consumed cereal in Asia. It’s sake, an alcoholic beverage from 14º to 20º degrees that you can also drink hot or cold.

Rice crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)

In Mexico we can also found a fermented drink that comes from a native plant. It is the mescal, obtained from Agave tequilana a native agave in Mexico. In this case the juice that originates the drink doesn’t come from the fruit, but from the base of its succulent leaves (called piña) containing a high concentration of sugars. The mescal is one of the alcoholic beverages with more alcohol (55º). The process of distillation of the mescal produces the popular tequila, which has an alcohol content of 37º to 45º. The fermentation of the agave to make pulque or mescal was already known by the Mexica but the distillation process did not occur until the arrival of the Spanish colonizers and its alembics in the S. XVI.

Agave tequilana crop field and “piñas” from where sweet juice is extracted to make the fermantated beverage (Foto: barresfotonatura)


Going back to the Old World, in the cold and continental lands of Europe, people have also arrived to ​​distillate the fermented juice of some plant found in the environment to produce an alcoholic beverage. In this case, I’m talking about vodka, a distillate of wheat (Tricticum sativum) or rye (Secale cereale) that can also be made from potato (Solanum tuberosum), one of the easiest and cheapest crop in cold. The graduation is quite high, up to 45 degrees.

Moreover the islands of Ireland and Scotland, came to distill the juice of barley (Hordeum vulgare), to produce whiskey; with more than 40º.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)

In the Caribbean and especially Cuba, there is a distillate with a completely different origin, rum, obtained from sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum). The history of this drink involves invasions, slavery and has no relationship with native plants, but rather with colonial history. Sugar cane is a plant of the family Poaceae (grasses) native to New Guinea and India. It was exported to the Caribbean islands by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century because its cultivation in tropical climates allowed high performance. Its production was only supported by the exploitation of Africans slaves. The rum has37º to 43º alcohol degrees. The Brazilian version of the rum is cachaça, obtained from the same process as rum.

Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)
Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) crop field (Foto: barresfotonatura)

We have travelled to America, Europe and Asia through its fermented alcoholic culture…Somebody knows the same culture in Africa or Oceania?


  • Herbert Howell C & Raven PH (2009). Flora mirabilis. How have shaped world knowledge, health, welth and beauty. National Geographic and Missouri Botanical Garden.
  • Hough SJ (2001). Biotecnología de la cerveza y de la malta. Acribia, Zaragoza.
  • Parthasarathy N (1948). Origin of Noble Sugar-Canes (Saccharum officinarum). Nature 161: 608-608.
  • Robinson J, Harding J, Vouillamoz J (2012). Wine Grapes – A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours. Allen Lane, UK.


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Carnivorous plants

The carnivorism is a nutrition style associated to animals, to the world of heterotrophs. But it has been seen that there are plants that are also able to feed on other organisms. They are called carnivorous plants and their strategies to capture dams are very different and curious.


A carnivorous plants , even being autotroph, get part of their nutritional supplement by feeding on animals, especially insects.

There are three basic requirements that  carnivorous plants must comply:

  • they must be able to attract, capture and kill the preys. To get their attention, they usually show reddish coloration and secrete nectar. Morphological and anatomical adaptations for retaining and killing the preys such as traps are used.
  • Digestion and absorbance of the nutrients releasedby the damn .
  • And finally, it has to draw significant benefit from the process.
Dionaea muscipula
Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) (Author: Jason).


Carnivorous plants are  not competitive in normal environments and tend to have a small root system, they need this specialization to allow them to grow faster. They are usually found in low mineralization soils, but with a high concentration of organic matter, sunny areas (as they still perform photosynthesis) and with  a high humidity.

Normally they are also calcifuges, i.e., they are not well adapted to alkaline soils and prefer acidic environments, where the source of calcium comes from the prey. They tend to inhabit soils with low oxygen and  saturated in water in a reducing environment. Some are aquatic and live either floating or submerged, but always near the surface.


The capture system is quite diverse, but can be classified according to whether there is movement or not. We consider active strategies for those plants having mechanical or suction movements. Semi-active strategies which present mucilaginous glands and have movement and finally, passive ones, with no motion for prey capture. They can present mucilaginous glands or pitfall traps. Somes amples are given below.


Venus flytrap

In the case of this plant, the traps are mechanical and they are formed by two valves joined by a central axis. These valves are the result of non photosynthetic leave transformations. The stem acts as a petiole and performs photosynthesis, for this reason, it is thickened, increasing its surface and facilitating the process. Furthermore, the valves have nectar glands to attract preys and its perimeter is surrounded by teeth which help the capture, as when the trap is closed, the teeth overlay perfectly avoiding the animal’s escape..

But, what mechanism drives the closing? There’s a gigh number of triggers hairs inside the valves. When the dam is located on the trap and makes the trigger hairs move twice or more in less than 20 seconds, the valves close immediately.

In this vídeos From the BBC one (Youtube Channel: BBC) we can observe the whole process.

Utricularia, the bladderwort

This plant lives submerged near the surface and is known as the bladderwort, because it has bladder-like traps. The bladders are characterized for having sensitive hairs that activate the suction mechanism of the dam. Then, the bladder generates a very strong internal pressure that sucks water in, dragging the animal to the trap. It’s volume can increase up to 40% when water enters.

In the following video we can see the bladderwort trapping a tadpole of cane toad (Youtube Channel: Philip Stoddard):


When I caught you, you won’t be able to escape

The presence of stalked mucilaginous glands is not unique in the carnivorous plant world, many plants use them as a defence or to prevent water loss. But, some carnivorous plants they are used to capture animals, as the sundews (Drosera) does.

The glands presents on the leaves of the sundews are formed by a stalk and an apical cell that releases mucilage. This substance attracts preys by its smell and taste. When the dam is located on the leaves, some drops of mucilage join each other to form a viscous mass that will cover all the prey, preventing its escape. We note that the glands have some mobility and move themselves to get in contact with the prey. Also, as a result, the leaf wrappes, facilitating the subsequent digestion.

The following video shows the operation of this mechanism (Youtube Channel: TheShopofHorrors):


Don’t get to sticky! 

The Drosophyllum‘s case is very similar to the previous one, but this time the stalked mucilaginous glands don’t have mobility and, therefore, the leaf doesn’t have either. The insect gets caught just because it is hooked on it’s sticky trap and cannot escape.

Insects trapped by Drosophyllum‘s stalked mucilaginous glands  (Author: incidencematrix).

Carefull not to fall!

Finally, we see the passive pitfall traps. They sometimes have a lid that protects them from an excess wàter getting in, even though it isn’t a part of the trap mechanism. The pitfall traps can be formed by the leaf itself or by an additional structure that is originated from an extension of the midrib (the tendril). The tendril lowers to ground level and then forms the trap.

Nepenthes (Author: Nico Nelson).

Dams are attracted to these traps due to nectar glands located inside. Once inside, going out is very complicated!  Walls may be viscous,  have downwardly inclined hairs that hinder to escape or present translucent spots that suggest the prey that there’s an exit, acting like windows , confusing and exhausting the prey, making it fall to the bottom, where it will drown. Other species also release substances that stun the preys, preventing them from running away.

Heliamphora (Author: Brian Gratwicke).

In some cases, large animals have fallen into these traps, though it is considered more as an effect of “bad-luck” than the plants supposed diet, though some traps measure up to 20cm long.



The fig and its reproduction

Has anyone ever seen a fig flower? Surely even if you really look for it, you will not find any of them. In fact, neither Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist, could discover the enigma of fig flowers and when he described the species and gave him a scientific name (Ficus carica L.), he said the fig had no flowers! But then how does the fig reproduce himself and origins its delicious summer fruit; the fig?


The flowers of the fig tree cannot be seen as they grow hidden inside the receptacle that supports them, the fig. They have developed a close relationship of mutualism with their pollinators so they don’t need to bloom externally offering sweet rewards. Indeed, each species of Ficus (including 750 species in family Moraceae) is pollinated by a unique wasp species (family Agaonidae; Blastophaga psenes in the case of the Mediterranean fig). It is a very complex case of coevolution between a plant and its pollinator in which neither species could survive without the other.

The mechanism of fig pollination works as a perfect gear. Female wasps are the first to visit the fig, where they arrive attracted by the smell of the mature female flowers. The female wasps possess special adaptations to penetrate the fig and achieve their ultimate goal: to leave their eggs inside. They have inverted teeth in the jaws and special hooks in the legs that let them to advance into the fruit. However, they have only one opportunity to deposit their eggs since most wasps lose their wings and antennae once they have entered the fig and therefore can no longer look for another. Once the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae feed on the contents of the fig. The male wasp larvae are the first to complete its development and when they reach sexual maturity, they seek female wasps, fertilize them and die inside the fig. The female wasps leave the figs a few days later, coinciding with the male flowers maturation and thus favoring that their exit will be carrying pollen. These fertilized and full of pollen wasps will look for a fig fruit again where to leave the pollen and eggs. Then the cycle begins again.

Open fig with its pollinator wasp (Foto: Royal Society Publishing).
Open fig with its pollinator wasp (Foto: Royal Society Publishing).


The fig is actually an infructescence (an ensemble of fruits that act as a single unit to facilitate the dispersion) with a special morphology called syconium. The syconium is a type of pear-shaped receptacle, thickened and fleshy with a small opening, the ostiole, that allows the entry of pollinators. Both male and female flowers (fig is monoecious) are together in the syconium, enveloped by bracts (white filaments found in the fig), but each one maturates in different time to avoid autopollination. Once the flowers are fertilized, the fruits originate within the same structure, thus flowers and fruits mix up.

Fig with the ostiole, hole by which wasps get into the flowers (Foto: barresfotonatura)
Fig with the ostiole, hole by which wasps get into the flowers (Foto: barresfotonatura)


Who would have said that the fig tree would have a so complex fructification mechanism? In fact, the fig tree is native to Asia but is now naturalized in the Mediterranean since prehistoric times. There is evidence of its consumption and cultivation from the Neolithic. The fig tree is considered as one of the first plants cultivated by mankind. In spring it produces fertilized figs (breba), increasing its production with two harvests per year.

Eivissa‘s fig tree (Ficus carica; Foto: barresfotonatura)
Eivissa‘s fig tree (Ficus carica; Foto: barresfotonatura)

Main Ficus species grow in tropical climates. In temperate areas, some of this species were brought for its interest in gardening. Many cities have grown these giants in their public gardens because their dramatic appearance. They can reach up to 30 meters high and they develop aerial roots that end up reaching the ground acting as buttress that hold their weight. The have become unique elements of our urban landscape; such as in the Parque Genovés, Cadiz or the magnificent specimen of Ficus rubiginosa located in the Botanic Garden of Barcelona.

Ornamental fig tree at the Parque Genovés, Cadiz (Foto: barresfotonatura)
Ornamental fig tree at the Parque Genovés, Cadiz (Foto: barresfotonatura)
Ficus socotrana with aerial roots in Ethiopia (Foto: barresfotonatura)
Ficus socotrana with aerial roots in Ethiopia (Foto: barresfotonatura)


  • Byng W (2014). The Flowering Plants Handbook: A practical guide to families and genera of the world. Plant Gateway Ltd., Hertford, UK.
  • Cruaud A, Cook J, Da-Rong Y, Genson G, Jabbour-Zahab R, Kjellberg F et al. (2011). Fig-fig wasp mutualism, the fall of the strict cospeciation paradigm? In: Patiny, S., ed., Evolution of plant-pollinator relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 68–102.
  • Font Quer P (1953). Diccionario de Botánica. Ed. Labor
  • Machado CA, Robbins N, Gilbert MTP & Herre EA (2005). Critical review of host specificity and its coevolutionary implications in the fig/fig-wasp mutualism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 102: 6558–6565.
  • Ramirez WB (1970). Host specificity of fig wasps (Agaonidae). Evolution 24: 680–691.
  • Serrato A & Oyama K (2012). Ficus y las avispas Agaonidae. ContactoS 85: 5–10.


The Queens of the Garden; flowers with crown

If you believed that crowns only belonged to kings and queens, you were totally wrong. In this article you will see that some flowers, as the daffodils, also wear crowns and they are worthy of them! In addition, not all flowers are wearing the same one, because there are many different ones, of all sizes and colours. And these singular structures are the reason that some of this plants are cultivated to plant in the gardens.


First of all, we have to present the Amaryllidoideaes subfamily (Fam. Amaryllidaceae) because is here where we will find these royal flowers wearing crowns.

The members of this subfamily are perennial or biennial and herbaceous plants with bulbs or rarely with rhizome (underground stems that are usually elongated and with horizontal growth, similar to roots, and that usually contains reserve substances stored). These plants tend to present long narrow leaves that surround a portion of the stem, with parallel nerves, hairless, deciduous, also they are flat and with entire margins, smooth.

A picture of a daffodils (Narcissus) as an example of an Amaryllidoideae member.


Now that we get an idea of how these plants are, we have to know the flowers characteristics. That is, how are the flowers:

  • Hermaphrodite: both male and female reproductive organs are present.
  • Bracteate: each flower has a specialized leaf that is originated in its armpit.
  • They can grow in solitary or grouped.
  • No differentiation between petals and sepals. Therefore, in this case there isn’t difference between corolla and calyx, but it is a perianth formed by two whorls of petaloid tepals. In each whorl are 3 tepals and in total 6 per flower. These may be free or connected together. When the latter happens, crowns can be formed, as explained in the next section.
característiques florals
Flower parts: 1. petaloid tepal ; 2. crown; 3. floral bract (Miguel Ángel García‘s modified picture).


The Amaryllidaceae group consists of 59 different genera. But not everyone is fit to wear crown. And now, you will know which of them are allowed and where they appear.


In Europe, the Mediterranean region and western Asia exists one of the most popular flowers with crown. It’s about the daffodil (Narcissus), one plant of the most used in gardening and surely the commonest queen of the gardens. This genus comprises a long crown or a funnel-shaped cup. Its origin is petaloid, that is, part of the tepals are fused to give rise to this structure. This type of crown is called paracorolla.

Narcissus (Author: Blondinrikard Fröberg).


On the other hand, within the same territory, there is the Pancratium gender. But this one presents a totally different crown; in this case the origin is staminal. That is, the bases of the stamens are enlarged and fused together to form the funnel.

Pancratium illyricum
Pancratium illyricum (Author: Tigerente).

Furthermore, the genera Calostemma and Proiphys occur between the centre and east of Asia and in Australia. These ones also carry staminal crowns (as in the previous case).

Calostemma luteum (Author: Melburnian).
Proiphys amboinensis (Author: Tauʻolunga).


Moreover, within the same distribution as the two examples above, Lycoris appears. But, this one wears a smaller crown as it’s formed only by the joining of the tepals’ bases. This leads to tiny tube.

Lycoris aurea (Public Domain).

Finally, in America is where we find a big variety of genera and different crowns, differently formed (but, some as in the previous cases). The members of this territory are: Clinanthus, Pamianthe, Paramongaia, Hieronymiella, Placea, Hymenocallis, Ismene, Leptochiton, Eucrosia, Mathieua, Phaedranassa, Rauhia and Stenomesson

Pamianthe peruviana
Pamianthe peruviana (Author: Col Ford and Natasha de Vere).
Placea amoena
Placea amoena (Author: Dick Culbert).
Phaedranassa tunguraguae
Phaedranassa tunguraguae (Author: Michael Wolf).
Ismene amancaes
Ismene amancaes (Author: Mayta).
Hymenocallis caribaea
Hymenocallis caribaea (Author:Tatters ❀).
Eucrosia bicolor
Eucrosia bicolor (Author: Raffi Kojian –
Clinanthus variegatus (Author: Melburnian)

Now that you know the different royal crowns, which one would be the queen of your garden?



  • Aguilella & F. Puche. 2004. Diccionari de botànica. Col·leció Educació. Material. Universitat de València: pp. 500.
  • Bolòs, J. Vigo, R. M. Masalles & J. M. Ninot. 2005. Flora manual dels Països catalans. 3ed. Pòrtic Natura, Barcelona: pp. 1310.
  • Guía de Consultas Diversidad Vegetal. FACENA (UNNE).Monocotiledoneas- Asparagales: Amaryllidaceae.
  • W. Byng. 2014. The Flowering Plants Handbook: A practical guide to famílies and genera of the world. Plant Gateway Ltd., Hertford, UK.
  • Apuntes de Fanerógamas, Grado de Biología Ambiental, UAB.
  • Guía de Consultas Diversidad Vegetal. FACENA (UNNE).Monocotiledoneas- Asparagales: Amaryllidaceae.

The plants and the climate change

Since a few years ago, we have heard about the climate change. Nowadays, it is already evident and also a concern. This not only affects to us, the humans, but to all kind of life. It has been talked enough about the global warming, but perhaps, what happens to the vegetation has not been much diffused. There are many things affected by climate change and vegetation is also one of them. In addition, the changes in this also affect us. But, what are these changes? how can the vegetation regulate them? And how we can help to mitigate them through plants?


Biomes distribution

In general, due to climate change, an increase of precipitations in some parts of the world are expected, while in others a decrease is awaited. A global temperature increment is also denoted. This leads to an alteration in the location of the biomes, large units of vegetation (e.g.: savannas, tropical forests, tundras, etc.).

Biome triangle classified by latitude, altitude and humidity (Author: Peter Halasaz).

On the other hand, there is an upward trend in the distribution of species in the high latitudes and a detriment in the lower latitudes. This has serious associated problems; the change in the species distribution affects their conservation and genetic diversity. Consequently, the marginal populations in lower latitudes, which have been considered very important for the long-term conservation of genetic diversity and due their evolutionary potential, are threatened by this diversity loss. And conversely, the populations in high latitudes would be affected by the arrival of other competing species that could displace those already present, being as invasive.

Species distribution

Within the scenario of climate change, species have some ability to adjust their distribution and to adapt to this.

But, what type of species may be responding more quickly to this change? It appears that those with a faster life cycle and a higher dispersion capacity will be showing more adaptability and a better response. This could lead to a loss of some plants with slower rates.

Galactites tomentosa
The Purple milk Thistle (Galactites tomentosa) is a plant with a fast life cycle and high distribution capacity  (Author: Ghislain118).

One factor that facilitates adjustment in the distribution is the presence of wildlife corridors: these are parts of the geographical area that enable connectivity and movement of species from one population to another. They are important because they prevent that some species can remain isolated and because they can also allow the movement to new regions.

Another factor is the altitudinal gradient, which provides shelter for many species, facilitates the presence of wildlife corridors and permits redistribution of species along altitude. Therefore, in those territories where there is greater altitudinal range, the conservation is favored.

In short, the ability of species to cope with climate change depends on the plant characteristics and the territory attributes. And, conversely, the species vulnerability to climate change occurs when the speed to displace their distribution or adapt their lives is less than the climate change velocity.

At internal level

Climate change also affects the plant as an organism, as it causes changes in their metabolism and phenology (periodic or seasonal rhythms of the plant).

One of the effects that pushes the climate change is the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration increase in the atmosphere. This could produce a fertilization phenomenon of vegetation. Due the COincrease in the atmosphere it also increases the uptake by plants, thus increasing the photosynthesis and allowing greater assimilation. But, this is not all advantages, because for this an important water loss occurs due that the stomata (structures that allow gas exchange and transpiration) remain open long time to incorporate CO2. So, there are opposing effects and fertilization will depend on the plant itself, but the local climate will also determine this process. Many studies have shown that various plants react differently to the COincrease, since the compound affects various physiological processes and therefore there are not unique responses. Then, we find a factor that alters the plant metabolism and we cannot predict what will be the effects. Furthermore, this fertilizer effect is limited by the nutrients amount and without them production slows.

Photosynthesis process (Author: At09kg).

On the other hand, we must not forget that climate change also alters the weather and that this affects the vegetation growth and its phenology. This can have even an impact on a global scale; for example, could produce an imbalance in the production of cultivated plants for food.


Although one cannot speak of plants as regulators of global climate, it is clear that there is a relationship between climate and vegetation. However, this relationship is somewhat complicated because the vegetation has both effects of cooling and heating the weather.

The vegetation decreases the albedo; dark colours absorb more solar radiation and, in consequence, less sunlight is reflected outward. And besides, as the plants surface is usually rough, the absorption is increased. Consequently, if there is more vegetation, local temperature (transmitted heat) intensifies.

But, on the other hand, by increasing vegetation there is more evapotranspiration (set of water evaporation from a surface and transpiration through the plant). So, the heat is spent on passing the liquid water to gas, leading to a cooling effect. In addition, evapotranspiration also helps increase local rainfall.

Biophysical effects of landcover
Biophysical effects of different land uses and its consequences on the local climate. (From Jackson et al. 2008. Environmental Research Letters.3: article 0440066).

Therefore, it is an ambiguous process and in certain environments the cooling effect outweighs, while in others the heating effect has more relevance.


Nowadays, there are several proposals to reduce climate change, but, in which way can the plants cooperate?

Plant communities can act as a sinks, carbon reservoirs, because through CO2 assimilation, they help to offset carbon emissions. Proper management of agricultural and forest ecosystems can stimulate capture and storage of carbon. On the other hand, if deforestation were reduced and protection of natural habitats and forests increased, emissions would be diminished and this would stimulate the sink effect. Still, there is a risk that these carbon sinks may become emission sources; for example, due to fire.

Finally, we must introduce biofuels: these, unlike fossil fuels (e.g. petroleum), are renewable resources, since they are cultivated plants for use as fuels. Although they fail to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or reduce carbon emissions, they get to avoid this increase in the atmosphere. For this reason, they may not become a strict mitigation measure, but they can keep neutral balance of uptake and release. The problem is that they can lead to side effects on social and environmental level, such as increased prices for other crops or stimulate deforestation to establish these biofuel crops, what should not happen.

Sugarcane crop (Saccharum officinarum) in Brazil to produce biofuel (Author: Mariordo).




Communication among plants: allelopathy

As always have been said, plants are unable to speak. But, even if they don’t speak, this does not mean they do not communicate with each other. Relatively few years ago, during the period from 1930 to 1940, it was discovered that plants also transmit certain stimuli to others. But, what kind of communication exist among them? What are their words and how are pronounced? And what involves this interaction?


In 1937, Molisch introduced the term allelopathy referring to the two Latin words “Allelon” and “Pathos”, which mean “another” and “suffering”, respectively. But, the actual meaning of the word was determined by Rice in 1984. Allelopathy now means any effect that a plant transmits to another directly or indirectly through production of different metabolism compounds, causing either a positive or negative effect on the other organism. These compounds are called allelochemicals.

The allelochemicals are released on the environment by plants. But, they are not directly aimed to the action site, thus it is a passive mechanism. To be effective, allelopathic interaction needs that these substances are distributed along the ground or the air and that they reach the other plant. Once inside the recipient plant, this one may have defense and degradation mechanisms of the compounds while avoiding the effect, or conversely, it will suffer a pathological effect.

Allelopathy (Adapted image of OpenClips)


The release of allelochemicals can be 4 main ways:

  • Leaching: the aerial part of the plant lets go substances by rain effect. Then, they can fall on other plants or on the ground. Therefore, it can be direct or indirect effect, depending on whether they falls on another plant or not. Although, in principle, it is considered indirect.
  • Decomposition: the plants drop their leftovers on the ground, where they decomposed under the microorganisms action, which help the release of the compounds. The plant leftovers range from leaves to branches or roots. The substances found there may be inactive until coming into contact with moisture or microorganisms, or can be active and then be inactivated by the microorganisms activity or by being retained on the ground. So, it is an indirect way. The decomposition is very important because the most of allelochemicals are released this way.
  • Volatilization: the substances are released by the stomata (structures that allow the exchange of gas and transpiration). These are volatile and water-soluble, thus can be absorbed by other plant’s stomata or be dissolved in water. Commonly, plants using these pathways occur in temperate and warm climates. It is considered a direct route.
  • Exudation: the plants can also release allelochemicals directly by live roots. The exudation system depends especially of roots state, of the kind of roots and of their growing level (if they are growing or not).
The 4 main pathways of allelochemical releasing: volatilization (V), leaching (L), descomposition (D) and root exudation (E). (Adapted image of OpenClips)


Factors influencing the release of allelochemicals are normally abiotic, such as high radiation, low humidity, unsuitable pH, ultraviolet light, temperature, nutrient deficiency, pollution or contamination (including pesticides ). The higher is the stress caused by this factors to the plant, highest is the allelochemicals amount released from secondary metabolic routes.

  • This is important for research and pharmacy: for generating relevant oils many plants are grown under stressful conditions, as it is thanks to the production of these secondary metabolites that they can survive.

Furthermore, biotic factors also take part, such as insects, herbivores or competition with other plant species. These activate the plant defenses and then the organism is stimulated to secrete bitter substances, or substances that harden the tissues, that are toxic or give off unpleasant odors, etc.

Finally, each plant has its own genome and this makes synthesize those or other substances. But, they are also determined by the phenology (life stages) and the development (if the size of the plant is bigger, it can release more allelochemicals).


The allelochemicals are very diverse and, therefore, it’s difficult to establish a general action model; since it depends on the compound type, the receiving plants and how it acts.

When we talk about how the allelochemicals can act at internal level, there is a large number of physiological parameters that can be affected. They have action on the cellular membrane, disrupt the activity of different enzymes or structural proteins or alter hormonal balance. They can also inhibit or reduce cellular respiration and chlorophyll synthesis, leading to a reduction in vitality, growth and overall development of the plant. Furthermore, these substances can also reduce seed germination or seedling development, or affect cell division, pollen germination, etc.

On the other hand, at external level, the allelochemicals may be related to the release or limitation of nutrients that are found in the soil. Others act on microorganisms, leading to a perturbation on the symbiotic relationships they establish. In addition, these substances have great importance into the generations succession, as they determine certain competition tendencies and also act on the habitat ecology. Even so, it is a successive competition, as they do not directly compete to obtain the main resources.


One of the best known allelochemicals is the juglone, produced by the Eastern black walnut (Juglans nigra). Juglone, once released to soil, can inhibit the other plants growth around the tree. This allows the issuing organism to get more resources, avoiding competition.

black walnut
Eastern black walnut  (Juglans nigra) (Photo taken by Hans Braxmeier)

A very curious case is that of the acacias (Acacia). These plants synthesize a toxic alkaloid that migrates to the leaves when the body is attacked by a herbivore. This substance’s toxicity is high, because it damages with the contact and ingestion, becoming deadly even for large herbivores.In addition, this alkaloid is volatile and transferred by air to other nearby acacias, acting as an alarm. When the other acacias receive this signal, this component is segregated to leaves, making them darker. Even so, the effect is temporary. This makes animals like giraffes have to constantly move to eat a few leaves of each acacia, and always against the wind, to avoid toxicity.

Acacias (Acacia) (Photo taken by Sarangib)



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  • A. Macías, D. Marín, A. Oliveros-Bastidas, R.M. Varela, A.M. Simonet, C. Carrera & J.M.G. Molinillo. 2003. Alelopathy as a new strategy for sustainable ecosystems development. Biological Sciences in Space 17 (1).
  • J. Ferguson, B. Rathinasabapathi & C. A. Chase. 2013. Allelopathy: How plants suppresss other plants. University of Florida, IFAS Extension HS944
  • Notes of Phanerogamae, Applied Plant Physiology and Analisi of vegetation, Degree of Environmental Biology, UAB