Gymnosperms and Fleshy "Fruits"

Fleshy red aril surrounding the seeds of  Taxus baccata.

Fleshy red aril surrounding the seeds of Taxus baccata.

Many of us were taught in school that one of the key distinguishing features between gymnosperms and angiosperms is the production of fruit. Fruit, by definition, is a structure formed from the ovary of a flowering plant. Gymnosperms, on the other hand, do not enclose their ovules in ovaries. Instead, their unfertilized ovules are exposed (to one degree or another) to the environment. The word “gymnosperm” reflects this as it is Greek for “naked seed.” However, as is the case with all things biological, there are exceptions to nearly every rule. There are gymnosperms on this planet that produce structures that function quite similar to fruits.

Cross section of a  Ginkgo  ovule with red arrow showing the integument.  Photo copyright Bruce Kirchoff, Licensed under CC-BY

Cross section of a Ginkgo ovule with red arrow showing the integument.

Photo copyright Bruce Kirchoff, Licensed under CC-BY

The key to understanding this evolutionary convergence lies in understanding the benefits of fruits in the first place. Fruits are all about packing seeds into structures that appeal to the palates of various types of animals who then eat said fruits. Once consumed, the animals digest the fruity bits and will often deposit the seeds elsewhere in their feces. Propagule dispersal is key to the success of plants as it allows them to not only to complete their reproductive cycle but also conquer new territory in the process. With a basic introduction out of the way, let’s get back to gymnosperms.

“Fruits” of  Cephalotaxus fortunei  (Cephalotaxaceae)

“Fruits” of Cephalotaxus fortunei (Cephalotaxaceae)

There are 4 major gymnosperm lineages on this planet - the Ginkgo, cycads, gnetophytes, and conifers. Each one of these groups contains members that produce fleshy structures around their seeds. However, their “fruits” do not all develop in the same way. The most remarkable thing to me is that, from a developmental standpoint, each lineage has evolved its own pathway for “fruit” production.

Ginkgo  “fruits” are full of butyric acid and smell like rotting butter or vomit.

Ginkgo “fruits” are full of butyric acid and smell like rotting butter or vomit.

For instance, consider ginkgos and cycads. Both of these groups can trace their evolutionary history back to the early Permian, some 270 - 280 million years ago, long before flowering plants came onto the scene. Both surround their developing seed with a layer of protective tissue called the integument. As the seed develops, the integument swells and becomes quite fleshy. In the case of Ginkgo, the integument is rich in a compound called butyric acid, which give them their characteristic rotten butter smell. No one can say for sure who this nasty odor originally evolved to attract but it likely has something to do with seed dispersal. Modern day carnivores seem to be especially fond of Ginkgo “fruits,” which would suggest that some bygone carnivore may have been the main seed disperser for these trees.

“Fruits” contained within the female cone of a cycad ( Lepidozamia peroffskyana ).

“Fruits” contained within the female cone of a cycad (Lepidozamia peroffskyana).

The Gnetophytes are represented by three extant lineages (Gnetaceae, Welwitschiaceae, and Ephedraceae), but only two of them - Gnetaceae and Ephedraceae - produce fruit-like structures. As if the overall appearance of the various Gnetum species didn’t make you question your assumptions of what a gymnosperm should look like, its seeds certainly will. They are downright berry-like!

Berry-like seeds of  Gnetum gnemon .

Berry-like seeds of Gnetum gnemon.

The formation of the fruit-like structure surrounding each seed can be traced back to tiny bracts at the base of the ovule. After fertilization, these bracts grow up and around the seed and swell to become red and fleshy. As you can imagine, Gnetum “fruits” are a real hit with animals. In the case of some Ephedra, the “fruit” is also derived from much larger bracts that surround the ovule. These bracts are more leaf-like at the start than those of their Gnetum cousins but their development and function is much the same.

Red, fleshy bracts of  Ephedra distachya .

Red, fleshy bracts of Ephedra distachya.

Whereas we usually think of woody cones when we think of conifers, there are many species within this lineage that also have converged on fleshy structures surrounding their seeds. Probably the most famous and widely recognized example of this can be seen in the yews (Taxus spp.). Ovules are presented singly and each is subtended by a small stalk called a peduncle. Once fertilized, a group of cells on the peduncle begin to grow and differentiate. They gradually swell and engulf the seed, forming a bright red, fleshy structure called an “aril.” Arils are magnificent seed dispersal devices as birds absolutely relish them. The seed within is quite toxic so it usually escapes the process unharmed and with any luck is deposited far away from the parent plant.

The berry-like cones of  Juniperus communis .

The berry-like cones of Juniperus communis.

Another great example of fleshy conifer “fruits” can be seen in the junipers (Juniperus spp.). Unlike the other gymnosperms mentioned here, the junipers do produce cones. However, unlike pine cones, the scales of juniper cones do not open to release the seeds inside. Instead, they swell shut and each scale becomes quite fleshy. Juniper cones aren’t red like we have seen in other lineages but they certainly garnish the attention of many a small animal looking for food.

I have only begun to scratch the surface of the fruit-like structures in gymnosperms. There is plenty of literary fodder out there for those of you who love to read about developmental biology and evolution. It is a fascinating world to uncover. More importantly, I think the fleshy “fruits” of the various gymnosperm lineages stand as a testament to the power of natural selection as a driving force for evolution on our planet. It is amazing that such distantly related plants have converged on similar seed dispersal mechanisms by so many different means.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

Gnetum Are Neat!


As much as I hate to admit it, when I think of gymnosperms my mind autopilots to conifers and ginkgos. I too easily forget about some of the other extant gymnosperm lineages with which we share space on this planet. Whereas one can easily pick out a conifer or a ginkgo from a lineup, some of the other gymnosperms aren't readily recognized as such. One group in particular challenges my gymnosperm search image to the extreme. I am, of course, talking about a family of gymnosperms known as Gnetaceae.

Gnetaceae is home to a single genus, Gnetum, of which there are about 40 species. They can be found growing in tropical forests throughout South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Gnetum essentially come in two forms, small trees and larger, scrambling vines. To most passersby, the various Gnetum species appear to be yet another tropical angiosperm with elliptical evergreen leaves. Indeed, the various species of Gnetum exhibit features that suggest a close link with flowering plants. This has led some to hypothesize that they represent a sort of living "link" between gymnosperms and angiosperms. We will get to that in a bit. First, we must taker a closer look at these odd plants.


We will start with their leaves. They are quite strange by gymnosperm standards. Gnetum produce elliptical leaves with reticulate or web-like venation. Also, their vascular tissues contain vessel elements. Such traits are usually associated with dicotyledonous angiosperms. Characteristics such as these explain why the taxonomic position of Gnetaceae has floundered a bit over the years. What about reproduction? Surely that can help gain a better understanding of where this groups stands taxonomically.

Gnetum reproductive bits require a bit of scrutiny. They are certainly not what we would call flowers. They aren't quite cones either. The technical term for gymnosperm reproductive structures are stobili. In Gnetum, these arise from the axils of the leaves. They are strange looking structures to say the least. Male strobili are long and cylindrical. They, of course, produce pollen. They also contain infertile ovules whose function I will get to in a minute. Female strobili, on the other hand, are larger and consist of ovules enclosed in a thin tissue or integument.


Pollination in Gnetum is largely accomplished via insects, though wind plays a significant role for some species as well. In insect pollinated species, the female strobili emit a strong odor and secret tiny beads of liquid called "pollination droplets." Pollination droplets are also secreted from the sterile ovules on the male strobili. It was observed that moths were the main visitors for at least two species of Gnetum.  The reason both sexes produce pollination droplets is to ensure that moths will visit multiple individuals in their search for food.

Following pollen transfer, even more angiosperm-like activity takes place. Some Gentum undergo a type of double fertilization that is quite unique among gymnosperms. Double fertilization is largely considered a defining feature of flowering plants. It is a process by which two sperm cells unite with an egg and become the embryo and the nutritive endosperm that will fuel seedling growth. Along with its cousin Ephedra, Gnetum double fertilization also involves two sperm cells, though the end result is a bit different. Instead of forming an embryo and an endosperm, double fertilization in Gentum (and Ephedra) results in the formation of two viable zygotes and no endosperm.

Fertilized seeds gradually swell into large drupe-like structures. Integument tissues develop with the seed, covering it in a fruit-like substance that turns from green to red as it matures. As far as anyone knows, birds are the main seed dispersal agents for most Gnetum species. 

Taken together, their peculiar anatomy and intriguing pollination have led many to suggest that Gnetum are more closely allied to flowering plants than they are gymnosperms. Certainly it is easy to draw lines from one dot to another in this case but the real test lies in DNA. Are they highly derived gymnosperms or possibly a so-called missing link? 

No. Recent work by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group found that Gnetaceae are more closely related to the family Pinaceae than they are any of the sister angiosperm lineages. Their work also revealed that, although this lineage arose some 250 million years ago, much of the diversity we see today is the result of rapid speciation events during the Oligocene and Miocene. It would appear that these derived gymnosperms are not the missing link they we once thought to be. In fact, the whole concept of an evolutionary missing link is flawed to begin with. 

Still, this should not take away from fully appreciating the bizarre nature of this family. The uniqueness of the genus Gnetum is certainly worth celebrating. They serve as a reminder of just how diverse gymnosperms once were. Today they are a mere shadow of their former glory, overshadowed by the bewildering diversity of angiosperms. If you encounter a Gnetum, take the time to appreciate it as a representative of just how strange gymnosperms can be. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]


By The Light of the Full Moon

The lunar cycle is iconic for many cultures around the world. Long before it became part of the human lexicon, ecological systems were syncing up with Earth's rocky satellite. Everything from corals to moths have honed in on the moon's dominance in the night sky. Even plants utilize its reflective properties to their advantage. One must only marvel at the bright white blooms of a ghost orchid or Selenicereus cacti to understand what I am talking about. It's not just angiosperms that are taking advantage of moonlight either. As it turns out, at least one  gymnosperm is also part of the lunar party.

Anyone who is aware of diet fads will have undoubtedly heard of Ephedra. These oddball gymnosperms are more familiar for the alkaloids that they produce than their ecology but one species is changing that. Ephedra foeminea is native to the Mediterranean region and has long baffled ecologist who study it. The odd thing about E. foeminea is that it is one of the few gymnosperms alive today that have evolved an insect pollination syndrome. Most other members of this genus are wind pollinated.

When E. foeminea becomes receptive for pollination, the tips of both male and female cones exude small droplets of a clear fluid. This fluid serves to aid in receiving and transporting pollen on insect bodies. However, with no discernible scent, it is hasn't always been clear exactly how insects locate the plants. That is, until recently. For years, researcher Catarina Rydin and her students have had trouble timing their field work around when these plants become receptive. Unlike some of its relatives, E. foeminea didn't appear to have a set reproductive schedule.

Then in 2014, Rydin realized something. After looking through photos of previous years, she noticed that the images in which the plants were exuding droplets were all taken on clear nights under a full moon. This was the missing piece of the puzzle. As it turns out, E. foeminea times its reproductive efforts around the full moon. Why?


Its actually quite simple. Without flowers or a scent, E. foeminea needs another way for insects to locate its cones. This is where the fluid comes in. Under the light of a full moon, the droplets cause the plant to sparkle. On a clear night, it would be hard to miss. Insects, specifically small flies and moths, have no issue tuning into this light display and thus the plant gets what it needs. 

The question of how exactly it syncs up with the lunar cycle is a complete mystery. It has been suggested that perhaps the light reflected by the moon is enough to trigger some sort of light receptive chemical in the plant. I have also seen it proposed that the plants can detect the same changes in gravity that cause the tides, however, more work is needed to figure that out. Still others have suggested that these observations do not provide sufficient evidence that lunar cycles have any effect on E. foeminea whatsoever. Until more work is done, this intriguing reproductive strategy remains a bit in the dark.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]