If extrafloral nectaries are not super-sized nectarine flowers, what are they?
While most plants produce nectar in their flowers to attract pollinators, there are over 2,000 plants that produce nectar in other places, and for entirely different reasons.
What are extrafloral nectaries?
Nectar is the currency used by plants to attract beneficial insects. Nectar is manufactured in glands, called nectaries. Nectaries are usually found in flowers. When these glands occur elsewhere, usually on leaves or stems, they are called extrafloral. So, extrafloral nectaries (EFN)s) are knob-shaped, nectar-producing glands found on leaves and stems.
These glands can take many different forms. Some are very primitive in structure, while others are highly complex. Regardless of the form, the nectar produced by EFNs is surprisingly consistent across species, and around the globe. This is in direct contrast to the wide ranging differences found in the nectar produced by flowers.
Why do plants have extrafloral nectaries?
If nectar is supposed to attract pollinators, why would it occur on stems and leaves? The most popular theory asserts that extrafloral nectar attracts insects, spiders, and crustaceans that protect the plant from sap-sucking, plant nibbling, seed eating pests. There is another theory that claims extrafloral nectaries may also serve a waste elimination function, but that theory is not nearly as popular, or as appetizing. Many beneficial insects (and some not so beneficial insects) are attracted to EFNs, regardless of the reason.
Insects attracted by extrafloral nectaries
Scientists believe this structure evolved on vining plants, due to ant traffic. Ants are one of the most frequent visitors to extrafloral nectaries. Since ants frequently carry diseases from one plant to another, and they farm aphids, I don’t usually count them as beneficial insects, even though they do help aerate the soil. Recent research, however, has also shown that ants serve a valuable function to trees by feeding on nectar and harmful insects, and then pooping those nutrients onto leaves. Those nutrients are then absorbed through the leaf, providing valuable plant food, right where it is needed.
A few, full-blown pests, such as Florida’s lovebugs, also tap into this food resource. For the most part, it is beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantids, and wasps, who are attracted to extrafloral nectaries. Some plants provide sheltered chambers, called domatia, for similar benefits.
Plants that feature extrafloral nectaries
There are over 2,000 plants that have extrafloral nectaries. All cucurbits and many members of the Prunus and legume families feature extrafloral nectaries. This means that your squash, melons and gourds have these knobby glands, as do your peach, apricot, nectarine, cherry, and plum trees. Cowpeas and elderberries do, too. Common vetch, willow, peonies, and many ferns, vines, and carnivorous plants also feature extrafloral nectaries. [Some scientists disagree with ferns being included in this list, since ferns do not produce flowers. Those scientists call these glands ‘extrasoral’.]
As more botanical research is conducted, we are learning than the food provided through extrafloral nectaries is critical to biodiversity, especially during times of drought.
Which plants in your garden have extrafloral nectaries?
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