Myrmecodia tuberosa – An Ant Plant

Last month when we visited the Denver Botanical Garden, I had to get a photograph of this lovely specimen.

That was because it was identified by a sign as Myrmecodia tuberosa, a commonly known “ant plant.”

What is an ant plant?

Certain types of plants, like this one, have special chambers or cavities within the walls of their swollen stems. The chambers are called domatia from the Latin word domus (house). The plants are called myrmecophytes or ant plants because ant colonies commonly take up residence in the domatia.

Why would plants provide living quarters for ants? In exchange for a place to live, the ants provide protection from herbivores and cleaning services to remove plant parasites and fungi. The ants may also pick up and disperse the plants’ seeds in some cases.

Often plants associated with ants are epiphytes, which means plants that are normally found growing on other plants or structures rather than in the soil. In these cases, the ants may provide essential nutrients in addition to their protection services. The ants store their trash in special areas within the domatia where it becomes composted and the plants absorb the nutrients from it. Scientists have actually given the ants food labeled with radioactive compounds and found the radioactivity ended up in the plants shortly after.

Ants can provide other services to plants, as well. In the tropical rain forests, certain species of ants take the seeds of unusual plants and purposefully plant them on their nests. The plants grow to cover the ant nest, protecting it. The ant garden plants, as they are called, supply nectar to the ants through extrafloral nectaries. The ants supply nutrients and protection to the plants. The plants the ants choose do not grow anywhere else, but only on ant nests.

This particular specimen did not appear to house ants. Maybe I should offer the curators some help with that. 🙂

Have you ever seen an ant plant full of ants? Do you know what kind?

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