Published in BMC Evolutionary Biology, Vol. 5, No. 38 (2005).
Available at doi:10.1186/1471-2148-5-38.


Although recent molecular phylogenetic studies have identified the photosynthetic relatives of several enigmatic holoparasitic angiosperms, uncertainty remains for the last parasitic plant order, Balanophorales, often considered to include two families, Balanophoraceae and Cynomoriaceae. The nonphotosynthetic (holoparasitic) flowering plant Cynomorium coccineum has long been known to the Muslim world as "tarthuth" and to Europeans as the "Maltese mushroom"; C. songaricum is known in Chinese medicine as "suo yang." Interest in these plants is increasing and they are being extensively collected from wild populations for use in herbal medicines. RESULTS: Here we report molecular phylogenetic analyses of nuclear ribosomal DNA and mitochondrial matR sequence data that strongly support the independent origin of Balanophoraceae and Cynomoriaceae. Analyses of single gene and combined gene data sets place Cynomorium in Saxifragales, possibly near Crassulaceae (stonecrop family). Balanophoraceae appear related to Santalales (sandalwood order), a position previously suggested from morphological characters that are often assumed to be convergent. CONCLUSION: Our work shows that Cynomorium and Balanophoraceae are not closely related as indicated in all past and present classifications. Thus, morphological features, such as inflorescences bearing numerous highly reduced flowers, are convergent and were attained independently by these two holoparasite lineages. Given the widespread harvest of wild Cynomorium species for herbal medicines, we here raise conservation concerns and suggest that further molecular phylogenetic work is needed to identify its photosynthetic relatives. These relatives, which will be easier to cultivate, should then be examined for phytochemical activity purported to be present in the more sensitive Cynomorium.