Thermogenic plants have the ability to raise their temperature above that of the surrounding air. Heat is generated in the mitochondria, as a secondary process of cellular respiration called thermogenesis. Alternative oxidase and uncoupling proteins similar to those found in mammals enable the process, which is still poorly understood.
The role of thermogenesis
Botanists are not completely sure why thermogenic plants generate large amounts of excess heat, but most agree that it has something to do with increasing pollination rates. The most widely accepted theory states that the endogenous heat helps in spreading chemicals that attract pollinators to the plant. For example, the Voodoo lily uses heat to help spread its smell of rotting meat. This smell draws in flies which begin to search for the source of the smell. As they search the entire plant for the dead carcass, they unknowingly pollinate the plant.
Other theories state that the heat may provide a heat reward for the pollinator: pollinators are drawn to the flower for its warmth. This theory has less support because most thermogenic plants are found in tropical climates.
Yet another theory is that the heat helps protect against frost damage, allowing the plant to germinate and sprout earlier than otherwise. For example, the skunk cabbage generates heat, which allows it to melt its way through a layer of snow in early spring. The heat, however, is mostly used to help spread its pungent odor and attract pollinators.
Characteristics of thermogenic plants
Most thermogenic plants tend to be rather large. This is because the smaller plants do not have enough space to create a considerable amount of heat. Large plants, on the other hand, have a lot of mass to create and retain heat.
Thermogenic plants are also protogynous, meaning that the female part of the plant matures before the male part of the same plant. This reduces inbreeding considerably, as such a plant can be fertilized only by pollen from a different plant. This is why thermogenic plants release pungent odors to attract pollinating insects.
Examples of thermogenic plants
Thermogenic plants are found in a variety of families, but Araceae in particular contains many such species. Examples from this family include the eastern skunk cabbage, the dead-horse arum, the elephant yam and Philodendron selloum, also known as elephant ear. Contrary to popular belief, the western skunk cabbage, a close relative from the Araceae family, is not thermogenic. The carrion flower (Amorphophallus titanum) also uses thermogenically created water vapor to disperse its scent — that of rotting meat — above the cold air that settles over it at night in its natural habitat.
A list of thermogenic plants
- Dead horse arum lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus)
- Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)
- Elephant Foot Yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius)
- Sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)
- voodoo lily (Typhonium venosum)
- Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum)
- "How Plants Work". Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- Turner Photographics. "Plant of the month: Voodoo Lily". Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- "Giant Stinking Flower". Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- "Skunk Cabbage". National Wildlife Federation. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- Seymour, Roger; Paul Schultze-Motel (1997). "Heat Producing Flowers" (PDF). Endeavor. 3. 21: 125–129. doi:10.1016/s0160-9327(97)80222-0. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- Onda, Yoshihiko; Kato, Yoshiaki; Yukie, Abe; Ito, Takanori; Morohashi, Miyuki; Ito, Yuka; Ichikawa, Megumi; Matsukawa, Kazushige; Kakizaki, Yusuke; Koiwa, Hiroyuki; Ito, Kikukatsu (2008). "Functional Coexpression of the Mitochondrial Alternative Oxidase and Uncoupling Protein Underlies Thermoregulation in the Thermogenic Florets of Skunk Cabbage". Plant Physiology. pp. 636–645. doi:10.1104/pp.107.113563. Missing or empty