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Elaiosomes

Red Trillium Seeds Being Dispersed By Ants

9-10-15 red trillium fruit and seeds  092The flower of Red Trillium (Trillium erectum), also known as Stinking Benjamin and Wake Robin, is familiar to many, as it is one of our more common spring ephemerals. The three reddish-maroon (some populations have white, yellow-green, or paler red) petals of its flower are colored and smell faintly like rotten meat. Lacking nectar, these flowers rely on deception to bring in pollinators which are primarily flies and beetles that are typically attracted to dead animals.

Once a Red Trillium flower is pollinated, the Hershey Kiss-shaped red fruit begins to develop. The seeds of Red Trillium have oily appendages called “elaiosomes” which attract a number of insects, particularly ants. These elaiosomes (also called “ant snacks”) contain lipids and protein highly sought after by ants. The ants carry the seeds down into their underground tunnels where they feed the elaiosomes to their larvae and dispose of the seeds in their compost pile. Here they they put their droppings, or frass, as well as dead ants. Conditions for germination are ideal in such a spot, and, in fact, research shows a greater germination rate for seeds with elaiosomes than those without them.

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