Psychotria elata is an understory shrub of the Rubiaceae family found throughout Central America from low to mid-elevation. It is most recognized for its pair of bright red lip-shaped bracts surrounding small, white, tubular flowers. This heterostylus plant is hummingbird-pollinated, though it is visited by other insects such as butterflies, and its small blue fruits are dispersed by birds. Little is known about herbivory for the species. The presence of alkaloids in P. elata has led to its common use as a medicinal plant within indigenous populations of Central America.
Psychotria elata is found from Central America to Columbia from 30 meters in elevation up to 1700 meters (Silva and Segura 2015).
A common understory shrub or small tree, P. elata is a member of the Rubiaceae family, displaying the characteristic simple, opposite leaves with interpetiolar stipules. The leaves are glabrous, and the plant ranges from one half to five meters tall. It has solitary terminal inflorescences of small, whitish, tubular flowers with white bracteoles. A pair of bright reddish-orange, shiny basal bracts surround the inflorescences (Silva and Segura 2015). The bracts are semicircles that are curved in such a way that they look like large lips, hence the common name, ‘hot lips.’ The plant produces a small, blue-indigo ovoid (egg-shaped) fruit from each flower (Silva and Segura 2015). P. elata is distinguished from the very similar species, P. poeppigiana, by the lack of hairs on the leaves and stem (Gargiullo et al 2008).
It thrives in secondary habitats and forest edge, and is common in the forest understory (Haber 2000, Sakai and Wright 2008, Dyer et al 2004). It is a pioneer species, growing in large gaps in the forest, and has been found in pure stands (Weissenhofer 2005).
The blue berries of P. elata are set against the bright red background and reflect a shorter wavelength of around 470 nm. This juxtaposition of short and long wavelengths aids avian fruit dispersers in finding the fruit, because it is a bird-dispersed species (Haber 2000), and also may facilitate distinction between fruits and flowers for insect visitors (Altshuler 2003).
Psychotria elata flowers and fruits year round, but most vigorously from January to August (Silva and Segura 2015). Due to this fact, P. elata is ecologically important as it provides food for many bird species during all seasons (Bolen 1998).
Not much is known about predation upon P. elata, but it has been demonstrated that asexual fragments will die with extreme leaf removal as a proxy for herbivory (Dyer et al 2004). Additionally, leaf-cutter ants have been observed to take P. elata leaves in an acceptability bioassay, but it is not conclusive that it is a species that the ants prefer (Farji‐Brener 2001).
Life History and Behavior
This plant is heterostylus, particularly distyly, meaning the stamens and pistils inside the flower are not the same length. This type of morph is known as pin and thrum; some flowers have long stamens and short pistils (thrum), and some flowers have short stamens and long pistils (pin) (Silva and Segura 2015). Anisoplethy has been shown to be common in P. elata, which means that there is not a 1:1 ratio of pin morphs to thrum morphs (Silva and Segura 2015). Being heterostylus promotes cross-pollination (Sakai and Wright 2008, Silva and Segura 2015). This is because the differing heights of the flower parts allow the pollinator to touch different ones when visiting different flowers. Basically, the pollen will be picked up from the male parts but likely will not be deposited on the female parts of the same flower.
Another characteristic for reducing the chance of self-pollination is having few flowers open at a time. It is more beneficial to do this considering P. elata is hummingbird pollinated year-round, and hummingbirds often partake in traplining. Traplining is a feeding method where the hummingbird will visit the same flowers multiple times per day in circuits as the plant replenishes the nectar (Wolowski et al 2013, Castro and Araujo 2004). If there are many flowers open, more pollen will be taken away and brought back to the same plant, increasing the chance that it will be fertilized by its own pollen. Thus, having one or two flowers open at a time is more strategic. P. elata also exhibits asexual reproduction by fragmentation (Dyer et al 2004).
As a hummingbird-specialized plant, P. elata is visited by hummingbirds in all seasons (King and Bawa 2003). The red bracts reflect a median wavelength of around 650 nm, which is a high wavelength matching the perception of hummingbirds. It is also visited by insects, especially butterflies, and P. elata is particularly important to Heliconius butterflies as a food source (Petrie 2007). Though they are considered secondary pollinators, it has been demonstrated that when a Heliconius butterfly has the pollen on its proboscis, it damages the P. elata pollen significantly, breaking it down and disintegrating the cytoplasm to access nutrients, and it cannot be used in reproduction (Krenn et al 2009). Additionally, data suggests that the long-style flowers’ pollen tubes shrivel with illegitimate pollination, indicating it avoids self-pollination (Faivre 2002).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Psychotria elata
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Psychotria elata
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 10
Species With Barcodes: 1
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
As an ethnomedicinal plant, P. elata is utilized by many cultures for many ailments. For example, in Nicaragua it is used to treat side effects of snakebites, it is implemented by the Garífuna people for at least seven ailments, and it is common in Rama midwifery to induce abortion, reduce fevers, and treat vaginal infections (Coe and Anderson 2005; Coe and Anderson 1996; Coe 2008). Furthermore, it serves as an anti-hallucinogenic in Panama (Caballero-George, et al 2001). Psychotria elata functions medicinally due to its alkaloids (plant-produced nitrogenous organic compounds that physiologically effect humans) that bind to different nervous system receptors involved in health problems such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and mental and feeding disorders (Caballero-George, et al 2001).
- Altshuler, D.L. (2003). Flower Color, Hummingbird Pollination, and Habitat Irradiance in Four Neotropical Forests. Biotropica, 35(3), 344-355. [see Figure 5 and discussion]
- Bolen, E.G. (1998). Ecology of North America, p. 7. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York.
- Caballero-George, C., Vanderheyden, P. M. L., Solis, P. N., Pieters, L., Shahat, A. A.,
- Castro, C.C. and Araujo, A.C. (2004). Distyly and sequential pollinators of Psychotria nuda (Rubiaceae) in the Atlantic rain forest, Brazil. Plant System Evolution, 244, 131-139.
- Coe, F.G. (2008). Rama midwifery in eastern Nicaragua. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 117, 136-157.
- Coe, F.G. and Anderson, G.J. (1996). Screening of medicinal plants used by the Garífuna of Eastern Nicaragua for bioactive compounds. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 53, 29-50.
- Coe, F.G. and Anderson, G.J. (2005). Snakebite ethnopharmacopoeia of eastern Nicaragua. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 96, 303-323.
- Dyer, L.A., Gentry, G., Tobler, M.A. (2004). Fitness Consequences of Herbivory: Impacts on Asexual Reproduction of Tropical Rain Forest Understory Plants. Biotropica, 36(1), 68-73.
- Faivre, A.E. (2002). Variation in pollen tube inhibition sites within and among three heterostylus species of Rubiaceae. International Journal of Plant Sciences, 163(5), 783-794.
- Farji‐Brener, A. G. (2001). Why are leaf‐cutting ants more common in early secondary forests than in old‐growth tropical forests? An evaluation of the palatable forage hypothesis. Oikos, 92(1), 169-177.
- Gargiullo, M.B., Magnuson, B.L., Kimball, L.D. (2008). A Field Guide to Plants of Costa Rica. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Gupta, M. P., Vauquelin, G., Vlietinck, A.J. (2001). Biological screening of selected medicinal Panamanian plants by radioligand-binding techniques. Phytomedicine, 8(1), 59-70.
- Haber, W. A. (2000). Plants and vegetation. Monteverde: Ecology and conservation of a tropical cloud forest, 39-70. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Krenn, H. W., Eberhard, M. J., Eberhard, S. H., Hikl, A. L., Huber, W., & Gilbert, L. E. (2009). Mechanical damage to pollen aids nutrient acquisition in Heliconius butterflies (Nymphalidae). Arthropod-plant interactions, 3(4), 203-208.
- Petrie, M. (2007). Body size and sexual selection in Heliconius charitonius and Heliconius melpomene (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). CIEE.
- Sakai, S., and Wright, S.J. (2008). Reproductive ecology of 21 coexisting Psychotria species (Rubiaceae): when is heterostyly lost? Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 93, 125-134.
- Silva, C.A., and Segura, J.A.L. (2015). Reproductive Biology and Herkogamy of Psychotria elata (Rubiaceae), a Distylous Species of the Tropical Rain Forests of Costa Rica. American Journal of Plant Sciences, 6, 433-444.
- Weissenhofer, A. (2005). Structure and vegetation dynamics of four selected one hectare forest plots in the lowland rain forests of the Piedras Blancas National Park ("Regenwald der Österreicher"), Costa Rica, with notes on the vegetation diversity of the Golfo Dulce region. Dissertation, Universität Wien.
- Wolowski, M., Saad, C.F., Ashman, T.L., Freitas, L. (2013). Predominance of self-compatibility in hummingbird-pollinated plants in the Neotropics. Naturwissenschaften, 100, 69-79.
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