Hypoxis juncea (and similar species)
Hypoxidaceae (not a true grass)
John and I wandered all over Jonathan Dickinson State Park on this hot sunny day working on photography…and on the railroad.
The itinerary took us through an area burned nine days ago. CLICK TO SEE THE BURN Mostly charred remains and blackened earth. Amid the ashes is Yellow Stargrass in full defiant bloom. Didn’t it burn up? Yes, yet up and abloom after a week. Many species, mostly monocots, blossom after fires.
Observers may attribute enhanced flowering after flames to the blaze removing competition or recycling nutrients. Probably so, but there has to be something more subtle, physiological, and immediate. Improved soil conditions don’t likely bring forth blossoms in 9 days or less. Some burned-over species are up and flowering the next day, Bulbostylis, also found in the Park. Fire-stimulated blooming occurs sporadically in diverse fire-habitat species. Combustion somehow causes a flower-inducing signal, probably a hormonal reaction. An exact mechanism is not known, but the gas ethylene is the prime suspect.
Ethylene is a component of smoke, and the gas is also a plant hormone with several known physiological functions, one of them being to switch on flowering in many species. It serves that way commercially in pineapples. Could fire-adapted plants have “learned” to harness the ethylene release from a passing fire to get ahead of the curve in recovery?
That Hypoxis juncea gets a kick from fire was known to iconic Florida botanist John Kunkel Small. Far more recently, biologist Alan Herndon, studying two Hypoxis species in South Florida, found not only that fire brings forth flowers fast, but also more flowers per stalk. Moreover, curiously, that flowers post-fire tend to be sexual, whereas fire-free flowers tend to shift to be asexual (cleistogamous) cloning the parent plant rather than the birds and bees. Fire time is gene mixing time.
Hypoxis juncea and other Hypoxis species have a secret underground tuber. I’ve read of a correlation between tubers and fire-stimulated blooming. The tuber is a chemical factory, resulting in fame, glory, hype, and hope for species of Hypoxis as medicinal plants, a little in North America and a whole lot in Africa, where much Hypoxis grows.
These plants have major history in traditional remedies for to many ailments to list. Their role in modern over the counter remedies comforts many afflictions. And they’ve crossed the threshold into modern medical research where they may save the world, or flop.
The star of the brew is a sterol called hypoxoside, which releases a component called rooperol into the human digestive system upon ingestion. Rooperol seems to bolster the human immune system. This and similar observations led to a wave of marketing Hypoxis in South Africa as a super duper tuber, often called “African Potato,” with packaged medicines derived from it. Rooperol became a wonder drug, especially for prostate trouble, cancers, and HIV.
Although there may be promise, the hype and hope bypassed research to the point of political trouble. The South African government advocated taking Hypoxis-based drugs for HIV, you might say in place of established effective antiretrovirals. Ineffective medication placed HIV patients at increased risk, and set off heated political disagreement in South Africa.
Hypoxis tuber. “Fire her” refers to the South African Minister of Health who angered critics by advocating Hypoxis, African Potato (Montato) for HIV. (Cartoon by John Curtis, from Y. Singh, Univ. of Pretoria, Ethnobotany of Hypoxis)