For most of the growing season, tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) is largely overlooked. When it comes time to flower, however, it is impossible to miss. Contrasted against a sea of goldenrods, its bright white flowers really stand out. This is a hardy species, tolerating lots of sun and dry soils. It is also a boon for pollinators and is usually humming with attention. To the naked eye, it would seem that there is nothing strange going on with this species. It grows, flowers, and sets seed year after year. However, a gene’s eye view of tall boneset tells a vastly different story.
A population-wide study revealed that the vast majority of the tall boneset plants we encounter are made up entirely of females. In fact, only populations found in the Ozark Mountains were found to produce sexually viable flowers with male and female organs. This is fascinating considering how wide spread this species is in North America. A close examination of the genome revealed that sexual plants were genetically diploid whereas the female-only plants were genetically triploid. These triploid plants produce sterile male parts that either have highly deformed pollen grains or produce no pollen at all.
Sexual populations of tall boneset do not reproduce vegetatively. They must be cross pollinated in order to set seed. Such is not the case for the female-only populations. These plants set seed on their own without any pollen entering into the equation. The seeds they produce are essentially clones of the mother plant. Such asexual reproduction seems to be very advantageous for these plants. For starters, they produce considerably more seed than their sexually reproducing relatives. The offspring produced from those seeds, having the same genetic makeup as their mothers, are inherently well-adapted to whatever conditions their mothers were growing in. As such, populations can readily colonize and expand, which goes a long way in explaining the female-only dominance.
Although tall boneset really hits its stride in midwestern North America, it can be found growing throughout the eastern portion of this continent. Casual observation would never reveal such interesting population dynamics which is why single species studies are so important. Not only do we learn that much more about a beloved plant, we also gain an understanding of how plants evolve over time as well as factors one must consider should conservation measures ever need to be considered.
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