Parasitic plants as facilitators: more Dryad than Dracula?


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Despite being components of most vegetation types, the community-level effects of parasitic plants are often ignored. The few studies adopting a broader view have revealed that these plants mediate a series of direct and indirect competitive and facilitative effects on community structure and ecosystem processes.
  • 2I summarize findings from the two best-studied systems: a set of experimental and manipulative studies from northern Sweden and an integrated research programme in southern Australia, both focusing on the most abundant hemiparasite in the region –Bartsia alpina (Orobanchaceae; Lamiales) and Amyema miquelii (Loranthaceae; Santalales), respectively.
  • 3Despite broad-based differences between these regions, their vegetation types and biotic constituents, rates of litter-fall, litter decomposition, nutrient return and plant growth all increased near the hemiparasites in both cases. This leads to changes in the abundance of other plants and the increased species richness and total biomass reflects an indirect form of facilitation.
  • 4In addition to reallocation of nutrients from host tissues, some of the additional nutrients may be excreted by other organisms, such as visiting pollinators, seed dispersers, herbivores and members of below-ground decomposer communities. Small-scale heterogeneity in nutrient availability could provide a mechanistic process underlying the role of parasitic plants as keystone resources.
  • 5Parasitic plants can be regarded as either malevolent predators (Dracula) or charitable benefactors(Robin Hood), but may be better described as Dryads (Greek deities associated with specific trees, which, in addition to being reliant on their host for their wellbeing, affect nearby trees and visiting animals, rendering the surrounding stand a sacred grove).
  • 6Synthesis. The Dryad role may be applicable to a wide range of facilitators, whereby indirect interactions with other organisms affect both hosts and adjacent plants, augmenting direct plant–plant interactions. However, while consistent with both case studies and information from studies of other parasitic plants, this role may be most apparent in low productivity systems. Addition, removal and animal exclosure experiments are highlighted as useful approaches to quantify the community-level influence of parasitic plants, in addition to dedicated work on the below-ground influences of parasitic plants.