The bright side of parasitic plants: what are they good for?
Parasitic plants are mostly viewed as pests. This is caused by several species causing serious damage to agriculture and forestry. There is however much more to parasitic plants than presumed weeds. Many parasitic plans exert even positive effects on natural ecosystems and human society, which we review in this paper. Plant parasitism generally reduces the growth and fitness of the hosts. The network created by a parasitic plant attached to multiple host plant individuals may however trigger transferring systemic signals among these. Parasitic plants have repeatedly been documented to play the role of keystone species in the ecosystems. Harmful effects on community dominants, including invasive species, may facilitate species coexistence and thus increase biodiversity. Many parasitic plants enhance nutrient cycling and provide resources to other organisms like herbivores or pollinators, which contributes to facilitation cascades in the ecosystems. There is also a long tradition of human use of parasitic plants for medicinal and cultural purposes worldwide. Few species provide edible fruits. Several parasitic plants are even cultivated by agriculture/forestry for efficient harvesting of their products. Horticultural use of some parasitic plant species has also been considered. While providing multiple benefits, parasitic plants should always be used with care. In particular, parasitic plant species should not be cultivated outside their native geographical range to avoid the risk of their uncontrolled spread and the resulting damage to ecosystems.