Category Archives: Nettle research

Strange world of fleshy nettle fruits (Urticaceae)

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Top: Myrianthus arboreus, Debregeasia salicifolia, Poikilospermum suaveolens. Bottom: Dendrocnide meyeniana, Urera baccifera, Touchardia latifolia.

Brightly coloured or fleshy fruit are not what you would associate with nettles. Indeed neither would most botanists who study them in a herbarium where once brightly coloured intricately shaped structures are reduced to congealed dark brown blobs. It is thanks to field work, and the enthusiasm of many amateur naturalists and their cameras that their beauty and complexity is becoming better known. Fleshy-fruited nettles are found across the family, comprising probably 1/4 of the genera. Nettles are very inventive in producing these fruits, with stalks, petals, fruiting branches or bracts being re-purposed following flowering. Although I work on nettles and so am naturally biased, I can’t think of another plant family that has come up with so many ways to produce a tasty morsel for a bird or mammal, or which produces such complex shaped fruits.

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Dendrocnide meyeniana, here brilliantly photographed in Taiwan by Flickr user ted762563. I have inserted arrows to highlight the tiny petals which later develop into the strange clasp-shaped fruit.

In the case of the tree from Taiwan and the Philippines, Discocnide meyeniana, the three tiny and unequal green petals around each ovary swell up into a ghostly white cradle which likely flags the exposed seed to potential dispersers. In this case likely a small bird. Another species with unusual fleshy fruits is a small tree from the Dominican Republic, Gyrotaenia microcarpa. In this species it is the fused flowering branches which become fleshy, expanding in fruit to leave the seeds exposed in small clusters on the outside, a bit like a misshapen strawberry.

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Gyrotaenia microcarpa fruit. The fused flowering branches swell up and become white, the seeds becoming black creating a contrast which presumably attracts small birds or mammals to feed.

In several species fruits designed to attract consumers also have stinging hairs. This is the case of the Latin American shrub Urera baccifera. In this species, not only do the tiny green petals become white and swell up to conceal the seed, but their flowering branches and stalks become bright magenta and fleshy, curling protectively over the white berries brandishing hypodermic stinging hairs. This suggests that not any animal is welcome to take the fruit. Whatever feeds on the berry will need to delicately free it  without getting stung.

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Urera baccifera, common throughout Latin America and well known for its brightly coloured but also stinging fruit clusters.

Probably the strangest looking fruit is that of Procris, a group of succulent species from Asia, the Pacific and Africa. In these plants the flower stalks all fuse to form a swollen foot. In fruit, together with the reduced petals at the ovary’s base, this becomes fleshy and when wet the whole structure is covered by a thick slime. It is hard to imagine what kind of animal this fruit is aiming to attract!

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Procris wightiana from Southeast Asia. The cup-like structures at the base of the seeds are the reduced petals that have fused and become fleshy.


I hope that this very brief and subjective survey of nettle fruits demonstrates how innovative and surprising plants (and nettles in particular) can be.


Lost world discovered in twilight of Chinese caves

Elatostema obscurinervium growing in stalagmite drip zones, one of 31 species known only from caves in China and Vietnam.

I never expected to be working in caves, that is, until I started to study nettles in Southwest China with Guangxi botanist Wei Yi-Gang. When Wei suggested that we collect in a local cave I was not hopeful. However, that first visit transported me to another world, an eerie moonscape in which plants thrived in powdery ‘soil’ and perpetual twilight. I was immediately gripped and determined to explore as many caves as possible. Over the next few years we visited over 60 caves, travelling on underground rivers, hiking across rice fields or sneaking into big tourist caves. Each time I got the same thrill from entering these strange and silent places. This has culminated in a paper just published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

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Yangtse cave, Fengshan County, Guangxi. Eight species new to science have been described from here.

There has been very little research on plants in caves. Having come across such a widespread and diverse flora we wanted to make sure that both botanists and cave biologists were aware of it. This is because plants growing in caves could tell us a lot about how plants adapt to extreme conditions. Also, as to how connected caves are to the surrounding landscape and each other. To do so we set out to answer a series of questions. Probably the most obvious was, are plants growing in light levels distinct to those outside? Did the species evolve in caves? Or are they survivors of a previous vegetation that at some time connected caves? And, are these plants important for conservation in the region? For example, in the restoration of the karst forests lost during the 20thC.

Cave converted to a tourist attraction.

There are thousands of caves in Southwest China and the landscape that they helped form has long been famous in Chinese culture and art. A landscape covered in dense forest until the 20thC at which time the ‘Great leap forward’ and later the ‘Cultural revolution’ resulted in massive deforestation. Once cut, the forest has not returned but instead been replaced dry scrub. The 21stC has brought new threats from cement and tourism. The rock that forms these caves is used to make cement, now in high demand, that combined with a rapid growth in tourism has meant once untouched ‘lost worlds’ are being mined or filled with walkways, bright lights and litter.

Collaborators from the Guangxi Institute of Botany, Fu Longfei and Chen Xiaoqin taking photosynthesis measurements.

We found that some of the plants growing in caves are surviving in very low levels of light. Levels much lower than previously known. From other cave studies we also know that daily changes in temperature and humidity are very small. There is also some suggestion from other studies that the cave atmosphere may be richer in CO2. It could be that low levels of light are being offset by more stable conditions and higher CO2 – an interesting question for future research.

We also found that whilst most of the plants we document are known from forest habitats elsewhere, 31 species are only known from caves. For reasons given in our paper we do not believe that this means that they evolved in caves but rather that they are species which were restricted to the forests lost in the 20thC.

So, it looks as if the plants that we are finding in caves are relics of forests that were lost to deforestation in the 1950s and 1970s. With a current focus on restoring these lost forests in China, these surviving populations could now become a valuable source of local plant material for restoration.

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Yin Jia cave close to Gu Lin village in Yunnan. At 1600 m above sea-level this is also one of highest elevations that we have collected in caves.

Other posts by me on this topic

2016: Studying cave-plants in SW China

2014: Caves explored last month


Studying cave plants in SW China

Yangtse cave, Fengshan County, Guangxi, type locality for eight species of plant. The plant-bearing part of the cave is ca 170 m deep and 70 m wide (note the person for scale)

As part of my research on the nettle family, Urticaceae I became aware of plants growing in the entrance caverns of caves several years ago and for over a year now my collaborators at the Guangxi Institute of Botany, China lead by Professor Yigang Wei and I have been working on documenting the full diversity of this unusual flora. This lead us to think about whether these plants may have become adapted to life in caves, in particular the relatively constant climate and low light. Especially for species which grow amongst the lowest light levels at the back of caverns where they are growing in a fraction of the light they could be expected to receive in a forest. We therefore applied for a grant from the Guangxi Key Laboratory of Plant Conservation and Restoration Ecology in Karst Terrain, and the Foreign Experts Bureau to undertake some preliminary work to document the climate, light and photosynthesis of the plants in the caves.

Fu Longfei and Chen Xiaoqin taking photosynthesis measurements using an instrument called a handheld PAM which uses fluorescence to measure various aspects of photosynthesis.

We selected the Yangtse cave as we know the diversity of plants that grow there (ten species of nettle alone), we have three data-loggers recording temperature and humidity in it and it is close to a town where we can spend the night. It is also a spectacular and beautiful place to spend several days working. The aim of our work was to collect the data necessary to test the hypothesis that the plants growing within the entrance cavern of the Yangtse cave exhibit different photosynthetic performance than the same or congeneric species growing outside of the cave. To do this we randomly selected individuals of three species of nettle in the genus Elatostema, one species of Begonia and a species of fern at four different locations in the cave, the back, midway into the entrance cavern, at the entrance and outside of the cave. We also brought two species of Elatostema from the living collection at the Guangxi Institute of Botany to compare their photosynthesis performance with members of the same species that had grown up within the cave. This was to get some indication as to how plastic their response was.

Elatostema obscurinervium, one of 31 species known only from caves and recently collected from a cave in northern Vietnam.

Each plant was connected to a hand-held PAM chlorophyll fluorometer, an incredibly sensitive device that can measure several key outputs of photosynthetic reactions in the chloroplasts as they take place. By comparing our study plants to those growing outside of the cave and from the scientific literature we hope to see whether cave-dwelling plants differ from non-cave plants in some of those parameters, and whether those differences are dependent upon what kind of plant they are. These parameters include the efficiency of photosynthesis, that is how much of the light energy is harnessed by the photosynthetic reactions, how much is dissipated and how resilient the photosynthetic apparatus is to changing light intensity. If we find  a difference between cave and non-cave dwelling plants then taken together these measurements can provide some indication of which group of photosynthetic reactions are leading to these differences.

Exciting images of nettle flowers

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Partially dissected female flower of the subtropical shrub, Pouzolzia zeylanica showing the ovary exposed (left) and the elongated style and stigma (right) protected by tusk-like hairs. Image by Jia Dong, RBG Edinburgh

Working with Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh student Jia Dong and plant anatomist Louis Ronse De Craene has resulted in some exciting and thought-provoking images of nettle flowers. The aim of our collaboration is to understand how nettle flowers develop and in the process work out what parts they have in common and which they don’t. The samples used were from living collections at Edinburgh and RBG Kew, together with my own collections in alcohol made over several years. The results are some beautiful and very informative scanning electron micrographs which show that the part of the female flower which recieves pollen (stigma) and conducts it to the egg (style) is characterised by two classes of hairs, one comprising defensive tusk-like hairs (above) and the other receptive tubular like hairs (above & below).

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Stigma hairs at the tip of the ovary of Pilea grandifolia, a succulent herb from Jamaica. Stigma hairs in the nettle family are characterised by their rounded obtuse tips and cylindrical shape. Image by Jia Dong, RBG Edinburgh.

Tubular hairs associated with the stigma are characteristic of all nettle flowers. They also appear very early in development. Combined this makes us think that they might have a role in pollination. Specifically in the reception of pollen. Being wind-pollinated, nettles don’t have a lot of control as to whose pollen reaches their female flowers and so there needs to be a way for them to control which pollen grains develop and fertilise the single egg. It seems likely that these hairs play a role and hopefully Jia will be able provide some more great images to test some hypotheses about this.

Female flower of Cecropia sp., a tcommon ropical tree from the Americas. In addition to stigma hairs you can see an apparent fold in the ovary. Image by Jia Dong, RBG Edinburgh.


Herbarium visit to La Paz (LPB)

The sorting bench where incoming material is identified in the La Paz (LPB) herbarium

One important task for specialists in a particular plant group, in my case nettles, is to visit national or regional collections and not just rely on the collections of our own institutes, no matter how good they are. As part of a conference and field trip I have just spent a couple of days in the La Paz herbarium. My colleague Nicholas Hind will spend three weeks there identifying plants from the daisy family (Compositae) and running an identification course. There were 92 boxes of unidentified Compositae waiting for him when we arrived!This herbarium was founded by German botanist Stephan Beck in 1984 and currently houses over 400,000 herbarium specimens. The reason why such visits are important both for the specialist but also for the herbarium are that although there is an active inter-herbarium loan system for plants it relies on material being accessioned, mounted and identified. This can be a real challenge to achieve in a country where there are few funds and even fewer botanists. The visit of a specialist allows material that has not been mounted or accessioned, together with unidentified material, to be reliably (one hopes) identified and so used as reference for future identifications. Continue reading Herbarium visit to La Paz (LPB)

Working on Cuban nettles in Berlin herbarium

A Cuban species of nettle, possibly undescribed. The leaves are about 2 mm across. To the middle right of the picture you can see a small cluster of female flowers about 1/2 mm in length

Funded by the Synthesys project I am studying the Cuban nettle collections of the Berlin-Dahlem Museum. The aim is to finish my account of the nettle family for the Flora of Cuba project that I started five years ago. It might seem odd that Cuba has so many nettle species that I can still be working on it, albeit in a fragmented way, for five years. Also that Berlin should be an important repository of Cuban plants, but there is a reason.

Cuba has an exceptionally rich flora and is especially important for the nettle family, Urticaceae, which is represented by about 70 species in eight genera. Together the Greater Antilles, Jamaica, Haiti/Dominican Republic, Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico, is a centre of species-richness for one group of nettles in particular, the genus Pilea. There are over 150 species of Pilea in the Greater Antilles, 60 of which are native to Cuba. The reason for such high diversity is unknown but may have something to do with the age of the islands, preponderance of limestone substrates or something else that we haven’t thought of yet. It does, however mean that I have been spending a lot of time looking at herbarium spcimens of this genus in the Berlin herbarium.

Room K10 in the underground, bomb-proof Berlin-Dahlem herbarium. This is where the Cuban collections are stored

The connection between Germany and the the Greater Antilles started with botanist Ignatz Urban, who did a  lot of work documenting the plant diversity of the Greater Antilles. Tragically most of his collections were destroyed in World War Two when the herbarium was bombed. During the Cold War the connection that had established between Berlin and the Caribbean switched to East Germany and the Jena herbarium impulsed by the formidable Johannes Bisse who founded the National Botanic Garden of Cuba. This lead to the foundation of the Flora of Cuba project a collaboration between the many excellent Cuban botanists and their German counterparts, initially in Jena and then from 1993 in Berlin. So that is the reason that I am in Berlin looking at Cuban nettles!

Ghost flowers in the nettle family

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A pickled Flower of Boehmeria zollingeriana, 1.2 mm in length viewed under a Zeiss Axioskop microscope. You can clearly see the two stigmas (ling filament like structures) and if you look carefully the two overlapping eggs within the ovary (dark egg-shaped structures)

Nettles are characterised, amongst other things, by having flowers with a single egg in their ovary and a single stigma, the structure which conducts the pollen to its target. Work by developmental biologists almost a century ago suggested that the ancestor of nettles probably had two eggs per ovary after discovering that at a very early stage of development nettle ovaries contain two eggs one of which disappears as the flower develops resulting in the single egged flower which characterises the family. It was therefore a great surprise when plant collections from Costa Rica examined in the 1990s were found to have flowers with two or three eggs and stigmas per ovary. These very unusual plants were described as a new species: Boehmeria burgeriana  by colleagues Melanie Wilmot-Dear and Ib Friis. Continue reading Ghost flowers in the nettle family

Soleirolia, a genus of small but perfectly formed nettles

Close-up of a flowering stem of Soleirolia soleirolia showing the male (left) and female (right) flowers. The leaves of this tiny creeping herb are about 3 mm across

I first came across this tiny creeping herb in my garden where it had been planted as an ornamental. The bright green leaves, mostly less than 3 mm across form an attractive carpet. Until now I had never been able to spot its flowers despite having checked several times over the last few years. My guess is that this species has a relatively narrow flowering time in spring and the flowers are so tiny that they are only visible with a hand-lens. For several years the genus has intrigued me, not so much because of its small size and creeping habit but because of its distribution and evolutionary relationships.

Engraving  of a female Soleirolia flower produced by the Anglo-French botanist Hugh Algernon Weddell in the 1850s. Weddell must have had access to microscopes of the very highest quality to produce such a drawing as the flowers that are about 1.5 mm in length

Firstly because Soleirolia consists of a single species that in the wild is only known from the Mediterranean island of Corsica. This is the only genus of nettle I know that is restricted to a single island or to the Mediterranean and I am very keen to try and found out why this could be (the history of the Mediterranean basin is quite a turbulent one). Secondly Soleirolia has traditionally been grouped with the  widespread Parietaria and intriguingly with Gesnouinia,  which also includes a single species but is restricted to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst they look very different as plants their female flowers share many similarities of form.  It might be, therefore, that Soleirolia and Gesnouinia should be viewed  as Parietaria species that have diverged morphologically as a consequence of being isolated on islands, a common phenomenon in evolutionary biology. I am currently testing this possibility using DNA sequence data and could have a better idea in a couple of months.

Endemic to Cosrica but now an ornamental and escaped weed throughout much of the temperate World Soleirolia soleirolia forms bright green carpets of tiny leaves



Seminar at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh on the nettle family

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View of the tropical glass house at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to present a seminar on  the nettle family, the Urticaceae at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. I have been working on this group of plants for over fifteen years with various collaborators  and am finally ready to publish a revised classification of the family. I had a good audience who asked some insightful questions as well as making some good suggestions for future research. You can see a pdf of my slides by clicking on the following link: Edinburgh Urticaceae 19-6. Afterwards I had a chance to talk to a number of colleagues that I would like to start collaborating with in the future.

Solving the mystery of Myriocarpa flowers

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Composite image of the base of a female flower showing what we now believe are bracts at the base. Note the small stalked glands spaced evenly along each bract. You can see each cell in the flower thanks to the amazing imaging facilities at the Natural History Museum.

For over a hundred years the genus Myriocarpa in the nettle family which comprises ca 15 tree species in South and Central America has been impossible to place within the family. This is largely because of the very unusual shape of the part of the female flower that receives pollen, known as the stigma (see image below) and the fact that neither of the two great experts could agree over whether the petal-like structures at the base of the flower were petals associated with the flower, or bracts associated with the stalk. Whilst this might not seem like the stuff to keep a botanist awake at night it has become of interest again as using DNA data we have identified as sister to another small group of trees, Gyrotaenia, found in Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Central America that has a flower which consists of the petals fused to form a tube which is fused to ovary.

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The tip of the female Myriocarpa flower showing the very unusual forked stigma, the part of the flower which receives the pollen. You can see that it is covered in multicellular hairs, which are characteristic of the nettle family, and serve to capture pollen form the air and guide it to the stigma.

I was therefore very curious to see whether Vladimir Blagoderov, Manager of the Museum’s Sackler Imaging Suite could help me generate an image that would help us resolve the mystery. He could! The two images above are each composed of about 20 images which ‘slice’ through the sample which was of young flowers collected in alcohol in Belize over 10 years ago. The resolution was amazing, each cell being visible. In fact you could even make out the rough crystalline structure on the surface of the hairs! Both of these images also helped us to answer the question, revealing that this flower does indeed consist of a tube composed of fused petals that is subsequently fused to the ovary. This we could see in both images where the clearly visible ovary is enveloped by another distinct tissue, as in the case of Gyrotaenia. It was also confirmed by the petal-like bracts at the base of the flower having stalked glands, structures not known to occur on the ovaries of Urticaceae. So a morning’s work and an idea of evolutionary relationships enabled me to answer a question that had been frustrating an albeit very small group of botanists for over 100 years!

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Photograph of the string-like flower clusters of Myriocarpa longipes taken in Panama where it occurs as a small tree growing near rivers in tropical forest. Each flowers cluster consists of thousands of tiny flowers