I’ve already talked about the toxic relationships of the plant world (parasitic plants), so let’s move onto healthy plant relationships! These plants exhibit mutualism, which means that they have a close relationship with an insect or animal, where both parties benefit.
This occurs all around us, every day! Think of bees visiting flowers for nectar, and in return pollinating the plant so that it can spread.
What is mutualism?
As humans, we all have our own relationship styles. However, if you manage to find another person who you’re attracted to, communicate well with and like being around, then you’re experiencing mutualism, where (hopefully) you both benefit from spending time with each other.
Plants that exhibit mutualism with insects or animals will benefit in some way, as will the creature in question. This could be through pollination (as mentioned above), habitat creation, food production and more.
Mutualism is important in almost every ecosystem across the world, from your own back garden to the Amazon rainforest! However, it’s difficult to find mutualism between two or more plants, as each species is usually competing with others for survival.
Examples of mutualism in plants
Bullhorn acacia and ants
The bullhorn acacia is a swollen-thorn tree native to Mexico and Central America, which houses a species of ant in its hollowed-out thorns. The ant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea, also known as the acacia ant) receives food and shelter from the tree, while the tree is protected from hungry herbivores when the ants release a pheromone which deters the animals from eating the tree’s tender leaves.
Yucca and moths
Yucca plants are dependent on a particular type of moth for survival. The yucca moth (Tegeticula yuccasella) produces larvae which feed on some of the tree’s seeds and use the seed pods as shelter. Once they have grown, they can then pollinate the plant to help it spread.
Mycorrhizae refers to the mutualism between fungi and plant roots. This relationship is an important one, as it has been suggested that many of the world’s plant species wouldn’t survive without fungi! By attaching to the roots of the plant, the fungi absorb the products of that plant’s photosynthesis. Meanwhile, the fungus also absorbs nutrients from the soil around it, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, but instead of taking these nutrients for its own benefit, it passes them back to the plant through its roots.
Pitcher plants and bats
While many pitcher plants can be a hazard to small animals that slip into their pitchers and experience a slow death, wooly bats and a particular pitcher species, Nepenthes hemsleyana, have found a way to benefit each other. The bats use this pitcher for shelter, while the plants absorb the nutrients in its droppings – like a big toilet bowl. Nice!
Humans and plants
It could be said that we, as animals, have a mutual relationship with plants. There’s an infinite list of benefits that plants provide for humans, including food, oxygen, shelter (such as a large tree sheltering the hot sun blazing in through your windows), and mental health. In return, we help plants thrive by watering, feeding, propagating and pruning them, as well as providing carbon dioxide.
Where to find mutualism
Just look in your garden! Mutualism is happening at this very moment, with birds eating the berries off your hedges and as a result spreading the seeds around, and with insects pollinating flowers and drinking their golden nectar.
If you’re also interested in parasitic plants, read my article on this subject here.
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Michael has been involved with gardening and plants since he was just five years old. He is a self-professed Plant Geek, and was listed in the Sunday Times top 20 most influential people in the gardening world, thanks to his plant hunter role at Thompson & Morgan.
Michael was responsible for new plant introductions such as the Egg and Chips plant and the FuchsiaBerry and keeps busy travelling the world in search of new plants as well as lecturing worldwide, including stints in Japan. He is very active on social media – so why not give him a follow at @mr_plantgeek or Facebook – and writes a plant-focused Substack called Grow This, Not That.