Mistaken antihero - Dendrophthoe falcata, a parasite

If you are from southern karnataka or kerala, and if you have ever shot stones at Mango Trees in their fruiting season, you would have spotted a cluster of leaves in some branches which are definitely not Mango tree’s. Yes, it’s a different plant altogether, which never in it’s life goes anywhere near soil. It takes birth atop the gigantic trees, grows to a considerable shrub and makes its family on the same tree or others. Ask about it with local people, they would curse the plant. They would say it kills the mango tree. It’s a well known anti-hero.
It’s a parasitic plant, which depends on the host tree for food, shelter and life at large. The generic term for the plant is ‘bandaNige (ಬಂದಣಿಗೆ)’ in kannada, ‘Mistletoe’ in English.
Parasites are considered an enemy of trees. As the parasite gets stronger, the host branch of the tree diminishes and dies. However, a strong tree develops a different branch and maintains itself in spite of parasite’s presence. But, if the parasite attack is on all the branches, it suffers acute shortage of food and gives up the fight for life over a long timespan, may be some 50 years
This article is about a parasite called ‘dendrophthoe falcata’.
[Dendrophthoe falcata on the host plant Artocarpus gomezianus (ಕೆತ್ತೆಹುಳಿ/ಉಂಡೆಹುಳಿ). Both parasite and host are co-existing for more than 30 years now, beyond the time of my oldest memories]

Host and parasite

Whatever be the emotional reasons of the mango tree’s owner to hate a parasite, this particular unfriendly guest is not something that we can strike off simply as cruel or useless. Firstly, I love its flowers. They are with unusually long petals. It appears as if the base and top of the flower first appear and the tubular part in between elongates later to make it complete (observe the different growth stages of the flower in the picture).
Dendrophthoe falcata - flower growth
Once the flower bud is fully grown-up, the top end of the tube opens up to curl out the green petals. I was in a dilemma whether only this green part (curled outside) is the petal or the whole tube is. Dr. Gopala Krishna Bhat (Flora of Udupi fame) has clearly documented that the long tube + the green crown at the end together make the petals (=corolla). I guess calyx (calyx = an envelope to the flower – imagine a rose bud which has a green envelope, which is broken when the flower open.) is reduced to none in the evolution path.

Dendrophthoe falcata fruits
I was lucky to get fruits for the photograph too. Out of many flowers in the bunch, only 3 had fertilized. God knows which bird/insect or other natural force, this plant depends on, to string its generation to the next!. I have never tasted the fruits so far, but Mr. Shivakumar, an expert in forest fruits told me that these fruits was the chewing gum in their childhood days!.

Clasp of the parasite onto the host
Chewing gum?! Why would this plant ever produce fruits with sticky pulp? A little thought would make it clear. Only if it is sticky, would the fruit stick on to a tree and the seedlings will establish on the host.

The connection thus established between host and the parasite is called ‘haustorium’, a complex biological structure using which the sucker tenant penetrates into the tissues of the tree and pulls liquid and nutrients to feed on.
Dendrophthoe leaves
Leaves are in pairs and midrib is reddish. Petiole (the small stick which connects leaf to the plant) is too short or rather absent.
Cobweb hosted on the flower bunch
If at all we ever to conclude that a mistletoe is a harmful killer, we are grossly mistaken.
[According to what I read in Wiki,] it was earlier believed that this species is not-so-significant in the ecological cycle; but now discovered to be playing a key role in nature. Some birds depend on its fruits for food and stick the residual seeds onto other trees in return of this help. Red ants build their nest by turning and joining the edges of the young, flexible leaves of the plant.

Weaver ants just built a nest on young leaves
I could also notice a cobweb, may be intentionally knitted around the flower-buds to grab the insects which visit in the lure of nectar. There may be tens of other life forms this plant is inter-dependent with, that we may not even be aware of.

Now, for a moment just imagine, the plants had some thinking and emotions. Imagine they had a language and could communicate with each other, atleast among the same species. If we, in the human world, call parasitic plants as harmful, how would two parasitic plants discuss about us when we walk under them? – will the word ‘parasite’ suffice to describe us or will they have some really better word to describe human kind of parasitism? Can we compare a dendrophthoe killing a plant in around 50 years of time to human beings cutting a well grown forest in around a week? Can drying up of rivers, creating hills of debris, destroying ozone, causing melting of remotest ice layers in Arctic, poisoning air, water and soil be called just parasitism? If depending on another species for food and shelter is parasitism, what would killing an entire species be called? and how about wiping out a thousand such species in a year and pushing another ten thousand into rare-endangered-threatened list?

I am sure even those two plants in discussion about we human beings, would have no word in their vocabulary.


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