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Crested Cow-wheat

Melampyrum cristatum

  • Family: Broomrape Family – Orobanchaceae
    (formerly Figwort Family – Scrophulariaceae)
  • Growing form: Annual herb. Hemiparasite.
  • Height: 15–40 cm (6–16 in.). Stem unbranched or upper part branched, short-haired.
  • Flower: Corolla zygomorphic, purple, fused, bilabiate, long-tubed, approx. 15 mm (0.6 in.) long. Tube usually curved. Upper lip hooded, with flattened sides; lower lip 3-lobed; both lips yellow. Calyx fused, 4-lobed. Stamens 4. Gynoecium composed of 2 fused carpels. Inflorescence dense, 4-edged, cross-shaped when looking from above, approx. 3 cm (1.2 in.) long terminal inflorescence on end of stem and sometimes branches.
  • Leaves: Opposite, almost stalkless. Blade linear–narrowly elliptic. Flowers’ subtending bracts partly reddish brown, ovate, cordate-based, grooved, pectinate (ciliately toothed), tip long, linear, with entire margins, descending oblique.
  • Fruit: Elliptic, flat, approx. 10 mm (0.4 in.) long capsule.
  • Habitat: Rocky hillside meadows, dryish coppices, roadsides. Calciphile.
  • Flowering time: July–August.
  • Endangerment: Endangered.

Crested cow-wheat grows in meadows where scores of different kinds of flowers tempt insects. It raises its profile with red upper leaves. At first glance it can be confused to a certain extent with similar-looking field cow-wheat (M. arvense), although the latter’s upper leaves are an even more striking red and its inflorescence is longer and cylindrical. It makes sense to make an effort to attract pollinators because good pollination means everything to annuals like cow-wheats. Cow-wheat seeds are transported by ants to new habitats. As they eat the soft, oily elaiosome that is attached to one end of the seed, it is transported further from the roots of the mother plant. There are also spiky glandular hairs at the base of the upper leaves which secrete nectar and can in this way tempt ants to open the capsule fruit to get at the ripe seeds. These probably can’t be said to be important, however, because ants gather the seeds systematically only after they’ve fallen to the ground.

Like other cow-wheats, crested cow-wheat is a hemiparasite, i.e. it assimilates itself but also sucks nutrition from other plants. Cow-wheats rarely form dense stands, but in that case they would have to steal nutrition from each other. Crested cow-wheat has become rarer in Finland, but the plant still grows quite commonly on the Åland Islands and in smaller numbers in south-west Finland and in Sääksmäki on Rapola hills in the province of Häme.

Other species from the same genus
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