A Common Plant With An Odd Pollination Mechanism


Pollination is not an altruistic enterprise. Each party involved is trying to maximize its gains while minimizing its losses. Needless to say, cheaters abound in natural systems. As such, plants have gone to great lengths to ensure that their reproductive investments pay off in the long run. Take, for instance, the case of the fragrant water-lily (Nymphaea odorata). 

Most of us have encountered this species at some point in our lives. Those who have often remark on the splendor of their floral displays. Certainly this is not lost on pollinators either. Coupled with their aromatic scent, these aquatic plants must surely be a boon to any insect looking for pollen and nectar. Still, the flowers of the fragrant water-lily take no chances.

Close observation will reveal an interesting pattern in the blooming cycle of this water-lily. On the first day that the flowers open, only the female portions are mature. The structure itself is bowl-like in shape. Filling this stigmatic bowl is a viscous liquid. After the first day, the flowers close for the evening and reopen to reveal that the stigma is no longer receptive and instead, the anthers have matured.

Many insects will visit these floating flowers throughout the blooming period. Everything from flies, to beetles, and various sorts of bees have been recorded. Seed set in this species is pollen limited so any insect visiting a female flower must deposit pollen if reproduction is to be achieved. This is where that bowl of sticky liquid comes into play. The liquid itself is rather unassuming until you see an insect fall in.

Due to the presence of surfactants, any insect that falls into the fluid immediately sinks to the bottom. The flowers seem primed to encourage this to happen too. The flexible inner stamens that surround the bowl bend under the weight of heavier insects, thus dumping them into the liquid below. Only by observing this process under extreme magnification does all of this make sense.

The liquid within the bowl essentially washes off any pollen that a visiting insect had stuck to its body. As the pollen falls off, it drifts down to the bottom of the bowl where it contacts the receptive stigma. Thus, cross-pollination is achieved. Most of the time, insect visitors are able to crawl out without any issue. However, the occasional insect will drown within the fluid. Alas, that is no sweat off the water-lily's back. Having dropped off the pollen it was carrying, it is of little use to that flower anymore.

Once a water-lily flower has been fertilized, its stem begins to curl up like a spring. This draws the ovaries underwater where they can develop in relative safety. It also ensures that, upon maturing, the seeds are more likely to find a suitable underwater site for germination. To think that this drama plays out time and time again unbeknownst to the casual observer is something I find endlessly fascinating about the natural world.

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Anise: An Angiosperm Success Story

Illicium floridanum

Illicium floridanum

I must admit there are few flavors I loath more than anise (and consequently licorice and fennel). Regardless of the flavor, I nonetheless find myself enamored by their whorled seed capsules of star anise. In an attempt to reconcile my feelings towards anise in a culinary sense, I decided to get to know the plants that are responsible for it and I am so glad that I did. As it turns out, this group of small trees and shrubs offer us a glimpse at some of the earliest branchings on the angiosperm family tree.

We get star anise from the genus Illicium. Native to humid tropical understories, there are roughly 40 species scattered around southeast Asia, southeastern North America, the Caribbean, and parts of Mexico. Molecular as well as fossil evidence suggests this group diverged during the mid to late Cretaceous, not long after flowering plants came onto the scene. Indeed, along with Amborella and Nymphaeales, Illicium represent the three lineages that are sister to all other flowering plants alive today.

Illicium henryi

Illicium henryi

To call them primitive, however, would be a serious misnomer. Because they diverged so early on, these lineages represent serious success stories in flowering plant evolution. Instead, think of them as fruitful early experiments in angiosperm evolution. Illicium has characteristics that set it out as being sister to all other flowering plants. For instance, the vascular tissues more closely resemble those of gymnosperms than they do angiosperms. Also, like the other sister angiosperms, Illicium blur the line between the long standing categories of monocot and eudicot. As such, they are sometimes referred to as "paleoherbs." Another key diagnostic feature lies in their floral morphology.

They don't have what could be considered true petals or sepals. Instead, they have whorls of tepals, which start off sepal-like and gradually become more petal-like as you near the center of the flower. The stamens, which are laminar or leaf-like, are also arranged in a dense whorl surrounding a yet another whorl of fused carpels. Once fertilized, each carpel gives rise to a hard, glossy seed. As the carpels mature and begin to dry, the individual capsules get tighter and tighter until at some point the seed is pinched so hard that it is ejected from a slit in the fruit in projectile fashion.

Illicium verum

Illicium verum

Although this research will never rectify the taste of this spice, it nonetheless has given me a new found respect and sense of awe for this genus. To look upon the fruit of Illicium is to look at a biological structure that has stood the test of time. These plants are evolutionary successes that should be admired for their unique place in the story of flowering plant evolution.

Photo Credits: Scott Zona and Tim Waters

Further Reading: [1]