Charles Day is Wave Hill’s Ruth Rea Howell Senior Horticultural Interpreter.
Ant plants have a unique symbiotic relationship. The plant provides accommodation while the ants provide nutrition.
Hidden inside the thickened stem are dozens of chambers, some larger than others, and some with smooth walls and others with rough walls. All are connected by tiny passageways that lead to the surface.
A colony of ants will happily occupy these chambers and go about its normal business. The smooth chambers are used for raising young and the rough-walled chambers for the disposal of nutrient-rich debris in the form of droppings, food waste (the remains of other insects) and recently-deceased ants. The plant is able to absorb nutrients via short, root-like growths that line the chamber.
This species, Myrmecodia tuberosa (syn. M. echinata), is from the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and northern Australia and a fine example may be seen in our Tropical House, the left-hand arm of the Marco Polo Stufano Conservatory.
There are many species in the genus Myrmecodia. They are all epiphytes—plants that grow on trees but take no sustenance from them—hence the great benefit of this ant-sourced plant feast.