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Vegetable vampire or grassland guardian? Understanding the role of the parasitic plant Rhinanthus minor in maintaining grassland biodiversity

Dr Duncan Cameron, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield

Wednesday 25 May 2011, 1600-1700
LEC Training Rooms 1 And 2

Over the last two centuries, parasitic plants, such as the Witchweed (Striga) and broomrape (Orobanche) have devastated crops in agricultural ecosystems around the globe. In the UK, the parasitic plant Rhinanthus minor was once considered a parasitic weed earning the common name 'stealer of bread' due to its devastation of cereal crops cross Europe. An understanding of the fundamental biology of Rhinanthus, the fact that it does not form a persistent seed bank and can therefore be excluded if removed prior to seed set, lead to its eradication as a weed in the early eighteenth century. As such, Rhinanthus is no longer considered as a threat to UK agriculture. This said, Rhinanthus species are still dominant features of agricultural ecosystems, inhabiting temperate hay meadows across the northern hemisphere. In grasslands, Rhinanthus plays a crucial role in the maintenance of biodiversity though the suppression of dominant grasses freeing many forbs species from competitive exclusion. While this phenomenon was first reported in the 1980's, it is only recently that we have come to understand the mechanisms through which Rhinanthus enacts community change allowing us to predict the effects of Rhinanthus introductions for ecosystem restoration and thus enhancing its application as a restoration tool.