Monday, June 6, 2011

Myrmecodia tuberosa

Out of the 600 genera from the Coffee family (Rubiaceae), there are more than 20 that are known to be Myrmecophytic - which means living in close association with ants. Typically the ants provide nutrients and protection in exchange for the abode. Some of the tuberous epiphytic myrmecophytes, pictured above from Huxley and Jebb's paper, are actually rather interesting horticutural subjects eg Anthorrhiza, Hydnophytum, Myrmecodia, Myrmephytum and Squamellaria. Other genera are less well known, like Myrmeconauclea, Nauclea and Milletia which are large shrubs, trees or vines.

Myrmecodia tuberosa is widely distributed throughout SE Asia and N. Australia. Unlike its close relative Hydnophytum, it is armed with spines which concentrate at its caudex. However, its most effective mode of protection is its tenant - the ants. Mind you these are certainly not the docile critters we are familiar with - they earn their keep ! It has been reported by Maschwitz et al that ants from genus Cladomyrma would linger more than an hour on the body of an unfortunate botanist to inflict painful bites that resulted in red itchy dots for days. Its means of protection is so effective that the even pollinators are deterred - its small tubular white flowers being self pollinating. The berries may be dispersed by the ants themselves but their bright orange colour also attract birds like flower peckers which can take them in mid flight.

Throughout its range, both Myrmecodia tuberosa and Hydnophytum formicarum are consumed by local communities for medical purposes. The water boiled with the whole plant is taken as tonic for liver, heart, digestive system as well as wide range of ailments like cancer, hepatitis and rheumatism. A person I acquainted with once visited New Guinea and brought back a few of these wondrous plants which I had no doubt to be a more exotic species. When I requested to purchase one from him, he was unyielding, claiming that it was needed to treat some undisclosed ailments.

I do not encounter this plant frequently in Peninsula Malaysia but in Sarawak, in the mangroves of Bako, kerangas of various regions and even trees beside a small stream, they occur in very large but concentrated numbers, usually with other ant-loving epiphytes.

A closer look at the entrances to ant chambers within the caudex. This particular form does not have the leaf shield called clypeoli.

Growing with a Pachycentria constricta, another myrmecophyte from Melastoma family, on the same branch.

Hanging over a small brown stream at a depleting forest.

This plant is best grown from seeds as transplanted adults plucked from the trees tend to fare poorly. It should be grown like a succulent and as you can see from the habitat photos, they do grow under the full scorching sun although partial shade would be better for smaller specimens. I found that they tended to succumb to rot more easily than Hydnophytum formicarum. A regular feeding of foliar fertiliser will ensure rapid progress and fruit formation.


Huxley, C.R. & M.H.P. Jebb. 1991a. Blumea 36: 1- 20.

U. Maschwitz et al Malayan Nature Journal 1989 43: 106-115

A.F.S.L. Lok et al, Nature In Singapore 2009 2: 231–236


Hermes said...

Absolutely fascinating. TopTropicals have a few useful growing tips:

Nat said...

A really interesting post! I think I saw a documentary on these plants, Planet Earth, or the secret life of plants. Something David Attenborough. Anyhow, thanks for sharing. One of the coolest tropical exotic blogs I've encountered yet!

Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

A very interesting type of plant to make use of the ants. No one wants to nibble on those. I guess it would be hard to establish just anywhere if the ants are not available. I have some shrubs where ants bunch the leaves together to make living quarters, but that has nothing to do with a myrmecodia. I grow A NATIVE MELASTOMA but it is an ordinary shrub with fantastic flowers.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I am definitely happy to discover this. cool job!

Hort Log said...

Hi Nat, thanks for dropping by - perhaps the Private Life of Plants.


Vegetation type of ant nest Myrmecodia pendans of Wamena in Papua Indonesia

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