Impacts of parasitic plants on natural communities


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  • Summary 1

  • I. Introduction 1
  • II. Parasitism: direct consequences 2
  • III. Dynamics of parasite–host interactions: host range, preference and selection 2
  • IV. Impacts of parasitic plants on the plant community 3
  • V. Impacts of the plant community on parasite populations 5
  • VI. Impacts of the parasite on other trophic levels 6
  • VII. Impacts of the parasite on the abiotic environment 11
  • VIII. Concluding remarks 12
  • References 12


Parasitic plants have profound effects on the ecosystems in which they occur. They are represented by some 4000 species and can be found in most major biomes. They acquire some or all of their water, carbon and nutrients via the vascular tissue of the host's roots or shoots. Parasitism has major impacts on host growth, allometry and reproduction, which lead to changes in competitive balances between host and nonhost species and therefore affect community structure, vegetation zonation and population dynamics. Impacts on hosts may further affect herbivores, pollinators and seed vectors, and the behaviour and diversity of these is often closely linked to the presence and abundance of parasitic plants. Parasitic plants can therefore be considered as keystone species. Community impacts are mediated by the host range of the parasite (the diversity of species that can potentially act as hosts) and by their preference and selection of particular host species. Parasitic plants can also alter the physical environment around them – including soil water and nutrients, atmospheric CO2 and temperature – and so may also be considered as ecosystem engineers. Such impacts can have further consequences in altering the resource supply to and behaviour of other organisms within parasitic plant communities.