This parasitic plant consists of just flashy flowers and creepy suckers

With only four known species, Langsdorffia are thieves stripped down to their essentials

Langsdorffia hypogaea male and female

Supreme grifters of the plant kingdom send up showy flowers (Langsdorffia hypogaea male, left; female, right) but don’t bother with even a single green leaf. Instead they just sneak around underground and steal all their food.

Jean Carlos Santos

Doorknobs in skirts. Microphones in tutus. There are lots of ways to describe Langsdorffia flowers, but parasitic-plant specialist Chris Thorogood says they “absolutely look to me like deep-sea creatures.”

Whatever you compare them to, the flowers are intricate, screaming red showpieces. That’s the total opposite of the unshowy rest of the plant. It has no leaves, just grayish, ropelike tissue that probes through soil and ranks in looks somewhere between blah and dried-up dog droppings.

The mix of flashy sexual parts and super-simplified other structures makes sense for the plant kingdom’s extreme parasites, including the four known Langsdorffia species. Why grow a lot of greenery to feed yourself when you can steal what you need (SN: 8/23/16)?

“They’re vampire plants,” says Thorogood, at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum. Langsdorffia’s underground rope sucks all the nutrition it needs from the roots of other plants, such as figs and mimosas. The burrowing freeloaders “challenge our notion of what plants even do,” he says.

Langsdorffia hypogea parasite
Scraping soil away from a Langsdorffia hypogaea reveals the plant’s scam: It’s just a bouquet of flowers growing from ropy vampiric tissue that sucks on other species’ roots.Jean Carlos Santos

Spotting such marvels requires finding just the right wild spot. Neither Oxford nor any other botanic garden grows them, and Thorogood has never seen a live one, he lamented in a Langsdorffia profile in the May 2020 Plants People Planet. But his lucky coauthor, ecologist Jean Carlos Santos, has.

The flowers of L. hypogaea species pop out of the ground here and there in Central and South America, including Brazil’s savanna, the cerrado. “Imagine the visual impact,” says Santos, of Universidade Federal de Sergipe in São Cristóvão, Brazil. The flowers bloom during the dry season, erupting in loud reds from a thin carpet of other plants’ dead, brown leaves.

Unlike many flowers from apples to zinnias that sport both male and female parts, an individual L. hypogaea plant is either all male or all female. Each of its knobby blooms burst from the soil as skirted masses of tiny same-sex nubbins. To attract the vital go-between pollinators, males ooze nectar among the nubbins. Females release it from their skirt and in a sweet zone at the base of the main bouquet. It’s a banquet in a parched season. Ants, beetles, cockroaches and even birds such as white-naped jays gather to feast.

Beetles probably do some actual pollination for the plant, says Santos, who studies insect-plant interactions. But ants and most of the other guests are probably just freeloaders themselves on this freeloading plant.

Blooming is an extraordinary event, and shows that even for a thief stripped to essentials, elaborate floral sex is apparently still worth the effort. Though, some observers have suggested, it may happen only once in each Langsdorffia lifetime.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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