has two species, C. coccineum of northern Africa and the
Mediterranean region and C. songaricum
of western Asia. The latter species, known as "suo yang" in Chinese and
is extensively used in herbal medicines. The genus is sometimes
included within Balanophoraceae, but unlike that family it has bisexual
flowers intermixed with male and female flowers within the dense
inflorescence. Cynomorium has been known for thousands of years
by ancient people who used it for food, medicine, and even for dyeing.
Arabs call the plant "tarthuth" and Bedouins ate the interior portions
of fresh young stems, prepared infusions of older stems to treat colic
or stomach ulcers, or dried and pulverized the plant for use as a spice
or condiment with meat dishes (see wonderful article by Robert Lebling HERE).
Medicinal uses of tarthuth can be traced to Al-Kindi, Al-Razi (Rhazes),
Ibn Masawayh, Ibn Wahshiya, and Maimonides but the plant became known
to Europeans only in the 16th century. A group called the Knights
Hospitaller of St. John operated a hospital in Jerusalem and learned of
the medicinal qualities of tarthuth from local Muslim physicians. When
the Crusaders lost Jerusalem to the Muslims, they moved to the island
of Malta where Cynomorium was also native. The site where
"Maltese Mushroom" grew (Fungus Rock) was thereafter vigorously guarded
and thieves were imprisoned or made galley slaves. The "treasure of
drugs," as the Arabs called it, was used for a variety of purposes,
including treating apoplexy, venereal disease, high blood pressure,
vomiting, irregular menstrual periods and as a contraceptive and
toothpaste. In his book "The Private Life of Plants, David Attenborough
implies that the medicinal qualities of Cynomorium can be
attributed to the "Doctrine of Signatures," i.e. that if a plant bore a
physical resemblance to a part of the human body, this plant was useful
in treating a disease associated with that part. For example, because Cynomorium
appears reddish-brown and darkens upon drying, it could be considered
useful in treating ailments of the blood. Moreover, the phallic shape
meant the plant could also be used to treat sexual problems. Evidence
is now accumulating that the ancient Muslims may have been correct with
regard to the medicinal qualities of tarthuth. See References (below)
for modern pharmacological work aimed at determining actual biochemical
- Habit of plant showing
inflorescences emerging from the sand. The parasite attaches to the
host roots via a massive haustorial system deep underground. Cadiz,
Spain. Photo of specimen no. 4063 by D. L. Nickrent.
Northeastern Tunisia. Photo by Stefan Wanke spring 2006.
- Close-up photograph
showing female flower (left and middle) and male flower (right). Photo
by D. L. Nickrent.
- SEM (Scanning electron
micrograph) of the pollen. Photo by D. L. Nickrent.
- Tarthuth emerging from the
sand. Ain Dar, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 21, 2005. Photo by
Stephen L. Brundage (Saudi Aramco).
- View of tarthuth in its
in the Ain Dar area of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, close to the
Ghawar oil field. Photo taken in March 2004 by Faisal I. Al-Dossary
- Young inflorescence of
just emerging from sand. Note the presence of scales intermingled with
the dense, still unopended flowers. Photo by Faisal I. Al-Dossary
- Young inflorescence being
visited by ants. Photo by Faisal I. Al-Dossary (Saudi Aramco).
- Inflorescence being visited
by flies. Photo by Faisal I. Al-Dossary (Saudi Aramco).
- A toad-headed agamid lizard
(Phyrnocephalus maculatus) taking advantage of the flies
attracted to tarthuth. Photo by Faisal I. Al-Dossary (Saudi Aramco).
- Mr. Quriyan M. Al-Hajri (in western dress) harvesting tarthuth (Photo1, Photo2).
Mr. Al-Hajiri is supervisor of Saudi Aramco's Wellsites Inspection Unit
and is also an expert on desert lore, Bedouin traditions and survival
techniques. Photo by Faisal I. Al-Dossary (Saudi Aramco).
- Mr. Quriyan M. Al-Hajri (in Saudi dress) harvesting tarthuth (Photo1, Photo2). Photo by Faisal I.
Al-Dossary (Saudi Aramco).
- Tarthuth, partially excavated.
The inflorescence can be quite long, with the actual haustorial
connection to the host many decimeters below the soil. Photo by Faisal
I. Al-Dossary (Saudi Aramco).
- Excavated inflorescences
of tarthuth next to an intact one. Photo by Faisal I. Al-Dossary (Saudi
- Inflorescence in hand.
Abarkouh region, Iran. Photo spring 2008 by Rasoul
of this species. Link goes
to the PlantPhotoBank.cn web site.
- Suo Yang as it is
sold dried and packaged as an herbal medicine for "invigorating the
yang", nourishing the blood, moistening the intestines, "locking up the
kidney essence" which assures male potency in old age, and many other
purported remedial effects.
- Typical advertisement for
Suo Yang seen on many web pages, complete with misspelled Family name!
Efforts must begin to conserve this plant where it is being extensively
harvested from natural populations.
This family, containing only the genus Cynomorium, was treated as a member
of Balanophoraceae in Kuijt (1969). The concept that the two families
were separate is not new. In fact, Takhtajan’s 1987
classification placed Balanophoraceae in Magnoliidae and Cynomoriaceae
in Rosidae. Unfortunately in his 1997 classification he re-united
them with Balanophoranae! Nickrent et al. (2005 BMC Evol. Biol. pdf HERE,
online text version HERE) showed
that Cynomoriaceae was not closely related to Balanophoraceae but was a
component of Saxifragales.
A large-scale study of angiosperms (561 taxa) by Jian et al. (2008
Syst. Bot.) questioned our result, indicating that Cynomorium belonged in
Santalales. These data are unpublished, nor was a voucher
indicated. But given the phylogenetic position, it is possible
the authors accidentally used a sample of Balanophoraceae. It should
also be pointed out that these authors erroneously indicated less than
50% bootstrap support for a Cynomorium
/ Saxifragales relationship in Nickrent et al. (2005). This is
not accurate, for this relationship had 98/100 (MP/Bayesian) support.
Also, Nickrent et al. (2005) included Santalales and Balanophoraceae in
their analyses, thus Cynomorium
had “the opportunity” to group with these taxa, but it did
not. Thus, at this time it does not appear that sufficient data exist
to consider seriously this alternate result.
But the confusion doesn’t stop there! In 2009 Zhang et al.
(Journal of Systematics and Evolution, published in China) conducted a
phylogenetic study using the chloroplast inverted repeat. They
showed that Cynomorium songaricum
was sister to Rosaceae (Prunus
and Fragaria) with 99% BS
Cynomorium will continue being
listed as a member of Saxifragales on this web site because only in the
Nickrent et al. (2005) study was the position confirmed by genes from
two subcellular compartments (mitochondrial and nuclear). Future
workers must take extreme care to voucher their specimens and extract
genomic DNA in a facility separate from one working with green plants.
Contamination is extremely easy with PCR and once it has happened,
difficult to discriminate from horizontal gene transfer.
SIUC / College of Science /Parasitic Plant
Connection / Cynomoriaceae
Last updated: 03-Apr-11 / dln