The phylogenetic distribution of extrafloral nectaries in plants

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Background and Aims

Understanding the evolutionary patterns of ecologically relevant traits is a central goal in plant biology. However, for most important traits, we lack the comprehensive understanding of their taxonomic distribution needed to evaluate their evolutionary mode and tempo across the tree of life. Here we evaluate the broad phylogenetic patterns of a common plant-defence trait found across vascular plants: extrafloral nectaries (EFNs), plant glands that secrete nectar and are located outside the flower. EFNs typically defend plants indirectly by attracting invertebrate predators who reduce herbivory.


Records of EFNs published over the last 135 years were compiled. After accounting for changes in taxonomy, phylogenetic comparative methods were used to evaluate patterns of EFN evolution, using a phylogeny of over 55 000 species of vascular plants. Using comparisons of parametric and non-parametric models, the true number of species with EFNs likely to exist beyond the current list was estimated.

Key Results

To date, EFNs have been reported in 3941 species representing 745 genera in 108 families, about 1–2 % of vascular plant species and approx. 21 % of families. They are found in 33 of 65 angiosperm orders. Foliar nectaries are known in four of 36 fern families. Extrafloral nectaries are unknown in early angiosperms, magnoliids and gymnosperms. They occur throughout monocotyledons, yet most EFNs are found within eudicots, with the bulk of species with EFNs being rosids. Phylogenetic analyses strongly support the repeated gain and loss of EFNs across plant clades, especially in more derived dicot families, and suggest that EFNs are found in a minimum of 457 independent lineages. However, model selection methods estimate that the number of unreported cases of EFNs may be as high as the number of species already reported.


EFNs are widespread and evolutionarily labile traits that have repeatedly evolved a remarkable number of times in vascular plants. Our current understanding of the phylogenetic patterns of EFNs makes them powerful candidates for future work exploring the drivers of their evolutionary origins, shifts, and losses.

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