Juicy Citrus

I was enjoying some citrus the other day when I got to thinking about these peculiar fruits. They are some of my favorites yet I know very little about their development. What is a citrus fruit exactly and why are they so juicy?

To start with, citrus fruits are produced by members of the citrus or rue family - Rutaceae. Not all members of this family produce them either. Technically speaking, the oranges, lemons, limes (etc.) we eat are specialized berries called "hesperidia." They are characterized by their tough rind and juicy interior.

Following fertilization, the ovary of each flower begins to swell. On the outside of the swelling fruit you find the rind or “pericarp.” The pericarp itself has a few layers associated with it but this is where the oil-filled pits are located. Anyone that has ever squeezed an orange peel has seen these pits spurt their contents.

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Inward from the pericarp are a series of segments, which are the carpels. The individual carpels are the reason why oranges can be so easily segmented. Inside each carpel is a locule. These are small cavities where the seeds are housed. Lining the walls of these loculi are tiny hairs that, as the fruit matures, gradually fill with juices.

These juice-filled hairs makeup the pulp of a citrus fruit. Look closely and you can see that they are indeed individual compartments. This not only provides some nutrients to the developing seeds, it also provides a meal for potential seed dispersers, thus increasing the chances of successful recruitment away from the parent tree.

From a quick snack I spiraled into a world of new information. It is amazing what you can learn from simple questions. As a botanically oriented person, every meal offers a sea of discovery!

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]

The Squirting Cucumber

Plants have gone to great lengths when it comes to seed dispersal. One of the most bizarre examples of this can be found in an ambling Mediterranean plant affectionately referred to as the squirting cucumber. As funny as this may sound, the name could not be more appropriate. 

Known scientifically as Ecballium elaterium, the squirting cucumber can be found growing along roadsides and other so-called "waste places" from the Mediterranean regions of western Europe and northern Africa all the way to parts of temperate Asia. It is the only member of its genus, which resides in the family Cucurbitaceae. It is a rather toxic species as well, with all parts of the plant producing a suite of chemicals called cucurbitacins. In total, it seems like a pretty unassuming plant. It goes through the motions of growing and flowering throughout the summer months but the real show begins once its odd fruits have ripened. 

A cursory inspection would not reveal anything readily different about its fruit. Following fertilization, they gradually swell into modest sized version of the sorts you expect from the gourd family. It's what is going on within the fruit that is most interesting. As the fruit reaches maturity, the tissues surrounding the seeds begin to break down. The breakdown of this material creates a lot of mucilaginous liquid, causing internal pressure to build. And I mean a lot of pressure. Measurements have revealed that at peak ripening, pressures within the fruit can reach upwards of 27 atm, which is 27 times the amount of atmospheric pressure we experience when standing at sea level!

A cross section of the fruit showing the weakened connection point.

A cross section of the fruit showing the weakened connection point.

At the same time, the attachment point of the stem or "peduncle" begins to weaken. With all that pressure building, it isn't long before something has to give. This is exactly the moment when the squirting cucumber earns its name. The stem breaks away from the fruit, revealing a small hole. Within a fraction of a second, all of that pressurized mucilage comes rocketing outward carrying the precious cargo of seeds with it. 

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The result is pretty remarkable. Seeds are launched anywhere from 6 to 20 feet (1 - 6 m) away from the parent plant. This form of dispersal falls under the category of ballistic seed dispersal and it is incredibly effective. Getting away from the competitive environment immediately surrounding your parents is the first step in the success of any plant. The squirting cucumber does just that. It is no wonder then that this is an incredibly successful plant species. 

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

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

Fiery Peppers - Evolution of the Burn

Love them or hate them, one must respect the fiery chili pepper. If you're like me then the addition of these spicy fruits can greatly enhance the culinary experience. For others, spice can be a nightmare. Peppers are so commonplace throughout many cultures of the world that it is easy to overlook them. As a plant fanatic, even the simple act of cooking dinner opens the door to so many interesting questions. What is a pepper? Where do they come from? And why are some so spicy?

Peppers evolved in the Americas. The genus to which they belong, Capsicum, is comprised of somewhere around 27 species. Of these, five have been domesticated. They have no relation whatsoever to black pepper (Piper nigrum). Instead, the chili peppers are relatives of tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants - family Solanaceae.

The fruit that they produce is actually a type of berry. In the wild, Capsicum fruits are much smaller than the ones we buy at the farmers market or grocery store. Centuries of domestication has created such gaudy monsters. The spicy effect one experiences when biting into a pepper is the result of a chemical called capsaicin. It is mainly produced in the placental tissues and the internal membranes. It is in its highest concentrations in the white pith that surrounds the seeds.

Capsicum chinense

Capsicum chinense

As with any fruit, the main goal is seed dispersal. Why then would the plant arm its fruits with fiery capsaicin? The answer to this riddle lies in their wild relatives. As mentioned, the fruits of wild peppers are much smaller in nature. When ripe, they turn bright shades of reds, yellows, and oranges. Their small size and bright coloration are vivid sign posts for their main seed dispersersal agents - birds.

As it turns out, birds are not sensitive to capsaicin. Mammals and insects are, however, and that is a fact not lost on the plants. Capsaicin is there to deter such critters from feeding on the fruits and wasting hard earned reproductive efforts. As such, the well defended fruits can sit on the plant until they are ripe enough for birds to take them away, spreading seeds via their nutrient rich droppings.

It may be obvious at this point that the mammal-deterring properties of Capsicum have been no use on humans. Many of us enjoy a dash of spice in our meals and some people even see it as a challenge. We have bred peppers that are walking a thin line between spicy and dangerous. All of this has been done to the benefit of the five domesticated species, which today enjoy a nearly global distribution. Take this as some food for thought the next time you are prepping a spicy meal.

Photo Credits: Ryan Bushby, André Karwath, and Eric Hunt - Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00994601

http://www.jstor.org/stable/4163197…

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/journals/journal/ijps.html