Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Let's be smutty


White campion (Silene alba) is a common wildflower, which graces our hedgerows and field edges in spring and early summer.

It usually looks like this.....
Silene alba (Potton Wood, 29th April)
Silene alba (Sutton field edge, late evening May)
...with bright, white flowers. These flowers looked dirty and smudged with purple dye.
Purple, smudgy Silene alba flowers
It was late evening and very windy, but I managed to get a few pictures. Close inspection showed that the anthers were dusty purple. 
Close up of anthers of infected Silene alba flower
The plants were infected with an anther smut fungus called Microbotryum violaceum (purple smut fungus). (Actually I can't be this specific with the name. Species delimitation in these smut fungi is apparently extremely difficult. See V├ínky, 2004). 

Essentially the smut has hijacked both the plant and its ertswhile pollinators. Any unsuspecting insect visiting the flower will carry fungal teliospores, rather than pollen, to a new host plant. The infected plant is sterile but not killed. 

Fascinating and a beautiful evening walk to boot.

UPDATE
I note that Silene alba is correctly named Silene latifolia subsp alba (linkie)

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