July 06, 2005

Botanist's site features 1,700 images Plant Web site features 'weirdest of the weird'

by Paula Davenport

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CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Daniel L. Nickrent's "garden" boasts some of the most bizarre plants in the world. Like the enigmatic plants whose enormous three-foot wide, red and white- freckled flowers smell like road kill. And plants that bloom underground, producing flowers so powerful they can push up through concrete and pavement.

A botanist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Nickrent tends a fertile, award-winning Web site he created with more than 1,700 images, representing 224 genera or 82 percent of all parasitic flowering plants — plus links to " who's who" in the field, scientific journal articles, other photo collections and more.

Sure, he delights in graceful roses and fragrant gardenias.

But it's the "weirdest of the weird" — parasitic plants — that stoke his scientific curiosity. And he collects and displays images and information on every species he can on his "Parasitic Plant Connection" Web page at www.science.siu.edu/parasitic-plants/.

It's one of the most comprehensive and highly trafficked sites of its kind.

Nickrent, who also works at the molecular level to unravel the mysteries of plant evolution, launched his Web site as a convenient way to store photos and notes. It now is an exhaustive collection he says he can't work without. He keeps the site in the public domain, sharing it with fellow botanists, researchers, teachers, students and inquisitive cyber surfers.

Parasitic plants, unlike their self-reliant botanical cousins, put out roots that snare nearby vegetation, sucking up their hosts' nutrients, Nickrent explains.

Fortunately, only a few of the 4,000 species of these freeloaders are pathogenic, such as witch weed (Striga), the main cause of corn crop failure in Africa.

The rest are relatively innocuous. Take mistletoe, for example. Or Indian paintbrush (Castilleja), common on Midwestern prairies.

Of all the benign species, he's enchanted by the mysterious, endangered "Queens of the Parasites," known as Rafflesia (rah-FLEA-zee-ah).

The world's largest flowers, some Rafflesia intermittently burst forth in three-foot wide, waxy-looking reddish blossoms that mimic the stench of rotting meat, hug the forest floor and tip the scales at 25 pounds.

"They also grow hairy interiors that resemble fur, a convincing act to attract the flies that pollinate them," says Nickrent. Yet not all Raffelesia blooms are monster-sized. Some produce only smaller, palm-sized blossoms.

"This is one of the plants I'll be talking about in mid-July when I go to Vienna, Austria, for the XVII International Botanical Congress in Vienna, Austria, which meets every four years," says Nickrent, who has been known to don a Rafflesia blossom headdress at Halloween.

Most folks never get to see these wonderworks in their natural surroundings. Rafflesia rarely blossom, sometimes taking five to 10 years between flowerings. And they're found only in Malaysian and Indonesian rain forests, such as those in Borneo and Sumatra, and in the Philippines.

Blooms begin to senesce in mere days, turning to slimy, black masses.

That's why Nickrent feels it's his contribution to science to post oodles of such parasitic plant pictures along with botanical data to his burgeoning Web site — sharing with cybernauts the plants he's passionate about.

A phenomenon in the plant kingdom, Rafflesia may be the "giant panda of the plant world." A single female flower may produce thousands of seeds, likely dispersed by tree shrews, rats and other wildlife.

But seeds rarely find host vines, elevating their unpredictable flowerings to tourist attractions, Nickrent says.

In an age where photo-snapping robots routinely plumb planets and submersibles cruise the deep seas, much about Rafflesia remains mysterious, says Nickrent.

This makes for fertile ground for rising generations of botanists, he says.

With the advent of DNA sequencing, botany is experiencing a Renaissance thanks to its newfound ability to accurately plot a plant's genealogical history.

"And there are a lot of cool stories coming out about plant relationships, genealogy and new methods of classifications," he says.

Nickrent encourages young people to follow him into the profession.

He spends countless hours updating his Parasitic Plant Web site, which serves as a beacon for future botanists and a world-class repository for those already in the field.

"All of my graduate students of late have learned about me through this Web site. Web presence is so important because it's the number one way people get information about you. If you Google parasitic plants, boom — you have a connection (to my Web site) and a connection to an information base that is just awesome. It's beyond imagination," he says, proudly.

Textbook publishers, researchers and others may purchase the rights to reproduce a good many of the parasitic plant photos. Nickrent handles the details and plunks the royalties in an account devoted to helping graduate research, travel and study.

"My online photo collection just keeps growing," he says. His next challenge will be striving to cultivate Rafflesia in botanical gardens or greenhouses.

"The important thing for students to remember is that not everything is ‘set in stone' or completely worked out as to biological principles in the botanical world. There is still so much to learn about plants," he adds.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

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(Caption 1: No rose so sweet — Rare and endangered, parasitic Rafflesia plants unpredictably break out of their host vines to produce mysterious blossoms on the forest floor that smell like rotting meat. It’s the perfect draw for flies that pollinate them. Dan Nickrent, a botanist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who conducts research on these unusual plants, found this bloom on the Malaysian island of Borneo.)

Photo: Courtesy Dan Nickrent

(Caption 2: Passion for parasites — Southern Illinois University Carbondale botanist Dan Nickrent loves to study parasitic plants. Such plants suck nutrients from host plants. They break a lot of rules, he says and in some ways are kind of earth shattering. Nickrent keeps an award-winning Web site devoted to the more than 4,000 species of parasitic plants worldwide.)

Photo: Steve Buhman