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Plant Answer Line Question

Keywords: Quirky, bioluminescence

I live in Nigeria. There is a plant, I don't know the name, but I know some of its characteristics: mostly it grows near rivers or rocky areas, sometimes it flashes light in the night like a firefly, and there are red ants that climb it. Can you tell me what plant this is?


We certainly aren't experts on the flora of Nigeria, but what you are describing sounds like bioluminescence. There are definitely fungi which are bioluminescent, and it's possible the plant you are describing is host to a fungus (such as Armillaria, Omphalotus, Tricholomopsis, or Clitocybe) which does glow or emit light in the dark. The less scientific name for this phenomenon is 'foxfire.' The University of California, Santa Barbara maintains a web page on bioluminescence, and answers commonly asked questions about it. Here is an excerpt:

"There are not any luminous 'flowering' plants which have been discovered. (That would be neat if rainforests glowed, but I think it is only likely to happen if they have something else on the vegetation in there making the light). Fungi, some of which do luminesce, are not plants, and so they don't qualify. The only 'plants' which do make light are the dinoflagellates, single-celled marine algae, and they are not plants strictly speaking."

Although I seriously doubt this is what you are seeing, there is some work being done currently on developing artificially luminescent trees (using nanotechnology and genetic engineering: ). As mentioned above, plants are not naturally luminescent themselves, though they may be host to luminescent fungi and bacteria.

Another plant that I thought of is Dictamnus, which is referred to as the 'gas plant,' because it exudes a volatile oil which is flammable and can be ignited with a match. Although I haven't heard of ants being interested in this plant, it would make some sense, because ants would probably be attracted to plant oils (just as they are attracted to nectar, or to 'honeydew' secreted by other insects on plants).

If possible, you could send pictures of the plant you have noticed, including close-ups so that any fungal presence on the plant would be visible. That might be helpful in identifying it and determining the cause of the firefly-like flashes of light.

Date 2017-04-14
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May 23 2018 14:32:42