Mild-mannered Mediterranean “wereplant” transforms & reproduces under the full moon

A. Quinton — Apr. 8th 2015

Werewolves may finally have an antidote to wolfsbane. Two researchers from the University of Stockholm have discovered that Ephedra foeminea, an otherwise nondescript (“rather ugly”) plant found in the eastern Mediterranean region, reproduces only by the light of the full moon.

Associate professor Catarina Rydin and PhD student Kristina Bolinder were in Greece studying the Ephedra family’s long evolutionary history, and were flummoxed by this particular strain’s ability to reproduce without enticing insect pollinators or even opening its pollen-bearing cones.

To botanists this puzzle must be interesting as hell, and it got even more interesting for Rydin and Bolinder when they started speculating on something non-botanist werewolf fans already know: introduce the full moon to a benign situation and shit can get real weird real fast.

On a hunch informed by the notion of nocturnal insects using the moon to navigate, the researchers “eagerly bided their time in the field, reading up about nocturnal pollination and counting down the nights until the July full moon”.  Then, according to Smithsonian Magazine, things got werewolfy.

On that long-awaited evening, the researchers strategically positioned themselves in an open field of E. foeminiea and waited. As the moon rose in the cloudless sky, its soft glow revealed droplets of pollen, which shimmered and sparkled on the brightly colored cones. “We may be biased,” Rydin says, “but we found it ever so beautiful.”

Whereas most nocturnally blooming plants have white flowers to help pollinators find them in the dark, E. foeminiea’s cones are red and yellow, and they emit no discernable scent. “It became clear to us that the glittering probably is the means of nocturnal attraction that we had searched for but not found before,” Rydin says.

This was supposed to take me like 10 minutes to post about, but I have to admit, I wound up spending an hour reading about this weird “big, scrambling shrub” in Greece. I love learning about edge cases in the natural world, and a plant that attracts pollinating bugs by dazzling them with sugary reflected moonlight is pretty unexpected. Sure, the werewolf connection is based on a headline-serving gimmick, but take a moment to imagine a new leaf (pun intended) of mythology in which a werewolf can counteract the poisonous effects of wolfsbane by smearing sugary Ephedra sap in his or her fur.

You can read the entire paper via Royal Society Publishing if you have institutional credentials or you’re willing to shell out $25.50 for limited access. If you’re a non-botanically-savvy layperson like me, I recommend the above-quoted Smithsonian article by Rachel Nuwer.