Plant Thieves

Please excuse the very random post. I’m taking a writing class with National Geographic and I needed to post my final project on a blog.

Away in the misty Himalayan Mountains in northwest Yunnan Province, China, lies a flowering shrub that faces thieves throughout its flowering season.

Rhododendron is a large flowering genus that contains about 1,000 species. Its center of diversity is in the Himalayan Mountains. The diversity of the plants in this genus is incredible. Some species that grow on snowcapped mountains are just a few inches tall. Others can grow to 50 feet tall. Though many of these species are charismatic due to their eye-catching, large, bright flowers, little is known about Rhododendron within their natural habitat. This is because many of the species are hidden on tall mountains.

The bright, red flowers of  Rhododendron floccigerum .

The bright, red flowers of Rhododendron floccigerum.

Recently, it was discovered that one Rhododendron species—Rhododendron floccigerum—is threatened by plant thieves daily during its flowering season in March. But what would a thief want from a plant?


In this case, the thieves are not masked bandits after gold and jewels. Instead, the thieves are birds and mammals looking for food after a long winter. Rhododendron floccigerum is one of the earliest flowering plants on the mountain where it grows. And the large, red, starchy flowers it produces are easily seen from afar by birds with their keen eyes and by rodents, like squirrels and chipmunks, while they scamper from tree to tree.


Instead of pollinating the flowers, these bird and mammal thieves pull off chunks of the bright red flower to eat. They also poke out entire nectaries from the flower to gobble up. These actions by thieves make the flowers of Rhododendron floccigerum less attractive. This may cause a problem for making seeds if the flower does not attract a pollinator.

Impact of thieving actions by birds and mammals on  Rhododendron floccigerum  corollas.

Impact of thieving actions by birds and mammals on Rhododendron floccigerum corollas.

 A possible lack of seeds may cause conservation issues for Rhododendron floccigerum in its natural habitat. But, more studies need to be done to find out how thieves impact Rhododendron floccigerum. Will you be the scientist to find out more?




Himalayan Mountains: The Himalayan Mountains, or the Himalayas, is a major mountain range that spans the Indian subcontinent and China. Mount Everest is part of the Himalayan range.

 Shrub: A shrub, or bush, is a small or medium sized woody plant.

 Genus: Plants, animals, and organisms are classified by scientists into different rankings to help organize and identify all of the organisms on Earth. Genera is the rank above species and below family.

 Center of diversity: Center of diversity is a term used to indicate an area where many different types of related species can be found.

 Pollination: The act of transferring pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part of the flower. In many plant species, animals, such as bees and birds, provide this service. The species who help with pollination are called pollinators.

 Nectary: A nectary is an organ in a plant that produces nectar.

 Nectar: Nectar is a sugary substance produced by plants to attract and reward pollinators such as bees.


Main reference:


Georgian, Elizabeth et al. 2015. The pollination ecology of Rhododendron floccigerum Franchet (Ericaceae) in Weixi, Yunnan Province, China. Journal of Pollination Ecology, 16(11), pp 72-81.


Elizabeth Georgian