Batty or catty? The flowers of Tacca chantrieri

A striking sight in the Begonia House at Wellington Botanic Garden.  Not a begonia! 

The black bat plant, also known as cat's whiskers or devil flower.   

Black (or dark purple) is an unusual colour for flowers, and the flowers of this plant have a most unusual appearance. 

The bat-like wings are bracts and the long whiskery growths are filiform bracteoles - modified leaves.  They frame an umbel (cluster) of flowers - the lower ones have opened and are fading, the middle ones are wide open and above them is an array of buds that are yet to open.

The long leaves are a lush glossy deep green, but are not visible in the image. 

A closer view of the flowers and bracts, demonstrating the difficulty of photographing very black flowers...

This is a large perennial plant from South east Asia and it is found in the understorey of tropical rainforests.   It is quite popular as an ornamental plant but in the wild it is endangered because of habitat destruction.

The plant produces taccalonolides and these are being investigated because they show promising anti-cancer properties - microtubule activity which kills certain cancer cells but not healthy ones - similar to Taxol, a very important anti-cancer treatment  found in the yew tree.

So - losing this plant could have meant losing a promising cancer treatment.  How careless we can be with the treasures around us!