An Intriguing Way of Presenting One's Pollen

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Getting pollen from one flower to another is the main reason why flowers exist in the first place. It makes sense then why pollen is often made readily available to pollinators. For many flowering plants, this means directing the pollen-filled anthers outward where they are ready to take advantage of floral visitors. The sunflower family (Asteraceae) does this a bit differently than most. They utilize a technique called secondary pollen presentation.

Though secondary pollen presentation is not unique to the sunflower family, their abundance on the landscape makes it super easy to observe. For the sunflower family, what looks like a single flower is actually an inflorescence made up of dense clusters of individual flowers. Each individual flower is roughly tubular in shape and, oddly enough, the anthers are tucked inside the tube facing the interior of the flower. It may seem odd to hide the anthers and their pollen inside of a tube until you see the blooming process sped up.

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The sunflower family actually relies on the female parts of the flower to bring the pollen out from the floral tube and into the environment where pollinators can access it. Members of the sunflower family are protandrous, meaning the male parts mature before the female parts. What this means is that the style of the flower can be involved in presenting pollen before it becomes receptive to pollen. This allows enough time for pollen presentation and reduces the likelihood of self pollination.

As the style elongates within the floral tube, one of two things can happen with the pollen inside. In some cases, the style acts like a tiny piston, literally pushing the pollen out into the world. In other cases, the style is covered in tiny, brush-like hairs that rake the pollen from the sides of the floral tube and carry it out as it emerges. In both cases, the style remains closed until enough time has passed for pollen to be taken away from the inflorescence.

After a period of time (which varies from species to species), the style splits at the tip and each side curls back on itself to reveal the stigmatic surface. Only at this point in time is are the female parts of the flower mature and ready to receive pollen. With any luck, much of the flowers own pollen would have been collected and taken away to other plants.

The combination of sequential blooming of individual flowers and protandry mean that members of the sunflower family both maximize their chances of pollination and reduce the likelihood of inbreeding. Add to that their ability to disperse their seeds great distances and myriad defense strategies and it should come as no surprise that this family is so darn successful. Get outside and try to witness secondary pollen presentation for yourself. Armed with a hand lens, you will unlock a world of evolutionary wonders!

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Dual Benefits of Smelling Like Frightened Aphids

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If you garden, you have probably dealt with aphids. These tiny sap-suckers not only drain the plant of valuable sap, they can also serve as vectors for disease. Plants must contend with the ever-present threat of aphid infestation throughout the growing season and have evolved some amazing defenses against these insects. Recently an incredible form of defense against aphids has been described in pyrethrum (Tanacetum cinerariifolium) and it involves smelling like a frightened aphid colony.

Aphids produce their own alarm pheromones when attacked. Because aphids form large, clonal colonies, these pheromones can help warn their kin of impending doom. Other aphids will also eavesdrop on these alarm signals and will avoid settling in on plants where aphids are being attacked. Aphids aren’t the only ones honing in on these scents either. Aphid predators and parasitoids will also use these compounds to locate aphid colonies. As such, these pheromones are helpful to the host plant because it can mean a reduction in aphid numbers.

An alate (winged) green peach aphid (Myzus persicae).

An alate (winged) green peach aphid (Myzus persicae).

The selection pressured imposed by aphids on plants is so strong that it appears that at least one species of pyrethrum has actually evolved a means of producing these pheromones themselves. Pyrethrum is a member of the aster family (Asteraceae) native to southern portions of Eurasia. Like all flowering plants, its flowers are the most precious organs. They are the key to getting their genes into the next generation and therefore protecting them from herbivore damage is of utmost importance.

It has been discovered that pyrethrums produce an aphid alarm pheromone called ( E )-β-farnesene or EβF for short. The pheromone is not produced in every tissue of the plant but rather it is concentrated near the inflorescence. What’s more, pheromone production is not constant throughout the duration of flowering. Researchers found that it production reaches its peak just before the inflorescence opens to reveal the flowers within.

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The production of EβF in pyrethrum appears to serve a dual function. For starters, it actually results in reduced aphid infestation during the early stages of flowering. When the initial aphid attack begins, these insects consume some of the EβF as they feed and release it as they excrete honeydew. Other aphids detect EβF within the honeydew and will actually avoid the plant, likely due to the perception that the aphids feeding there are already under attack.

That does not mean that predators are not to be found. In fact, the other benefit of producing EβF in the inflorescence is that it appears to lure in one of the most voracious aphid predators on the planet - ladybird beetles. The ladybird beetles are able to detect EβF in the air and will come from far and wide to investigate in hopes of finding a tasty aphid meal. The ladybird beetles were most frequently found on plants during the early stages of floral development, which suggests that EβF production in the floral tissues is the main attractant.

A 7-spot ladybird beetle (Coccinella septempunctata).

A 7-spot ladybird beetle (Coccinella septempunctata).

Interestingly, it has been found that constant production of EβF is less effective at deterring aphids than pulses of EβF. It is thought that just as humans can get used to certain background levels of scent, so too can aphids. If aphids are exposed to high levels of EβF for long periods of time, they simply recognize it as the safe background level and will continue to feed. This may explain why pyrethrum plants only produce EβF for a short period of time during the most crucial stages of floral development. Research like this not only improves our understanding of the myriad ways in which plants defend themselves, it also offers us new avenues for researching more natural ways of defending the plants we rely on from unwanted pests.

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

Further Reading: [1]


Everlasting or Seven Years Little

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Common names are a funny thing. Depending on the region, the use, and the culture, one plant can take on many names. In other situations, many different plants can take on a single name. Though it isn't always obvious to those unfamiliar with them, the use of scientific names alleviates these issues by standardizing the naming of things so that anyone, regardless of where they are, knows what they are referring to. That being said, sometimes common names can be entertaining.

Take for instance, plants in the genus Syncarpha. These stunning members of the family Asteraceae are endemic to the fynbos region of the Eastern and Western Cape of South Africa. In appearance they are impossible to miss. In growth habit they have been described as "woody shrublets," forming dense clusters of woody stems covered in a coat of woolly hairs. Sitting atop their meter-high stems are the flower heads.

Each flower head consists of rings of colorful paper-like bracts surrounding a dense cluster of disk flowers. The flowering period of the various species can last for weeks and spans from October, well into January. Numerous beetles can be observed visiting the flowers and often times mating as they feed on pollen. Some of the beetles can be hard to spot as they camouflage quite well atop the central disk. Some authors feel that such beetles are the main pollinators for many species within this genus.

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Their mesmerizing floral displays are where their English common name of "everlasting" comes from. Due to the fact that they maintain their shape and color for a long time after being cut and dried, various Syncarpha species have been used quite a bit in the cut flower industry. A name that suggests everlasting longevity stands in stark contrast to their other common name. 

These plants are referred to as "sewejaartjie" in Afrikaans, which roughly translates to "seven years little." Why would these plants be referred to as everlasting by some and relatively ephemeral by others? It turns out, sewejaartjie is a name that has more to do with their ecology than it does their use in the floral industry.

As a whole, the 29 described species of Syncarpha are considered fire ephemerals. The fynbos is known for its fire regime and the plants that call this region home have evolved in response to this fact. Syncarpha are no exception. They flower regularly and produce copious amounts of seed but rarely live for more than 7 years after germination. Also, they do not compete well with any vegetation that is capable of shading them out.

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Instead, Syncarpha invest heavily in seed banking. Seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years until fires clear the landscape of competing vegetation and release valuable nutrients into the soil. Only then will the seeds germinate. As such, the mature plants don't bother trying to survive intense ground fires. They burn up along with their neighbors, leaving plenty of seed to usher in the next generation.

Research has shown that its not the heat so much as the smoke that breaks seed dormancy in these plants. In fact, numerous experiments using liquid smoke have demonstrated that the seeds are likely triggered by some bio-active chemical within the smoke itself.

So, there you have it. Roughly 29 plants with two common names, each referring back to an interesting aspect of the biology of these plants. Despite their familiarity and relative ease of committing to memory, the common names of various species only get us so far. That's not to say we should abolish the use of common names altogether. Learning about any plant should be an all encompassing endeavor provided you know which plant you are referring to.

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

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

 

Pearly Everlasting

I have gardened with a lot of native plants over the years but pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) may be one of my favorites. Not only is it easy to grow, this tough little plant can handle some pretty harsh soil conditions. In the wild, I often find it growing along gravelly roadsides where it puts on quite a show. Let's be honest with each other, who doesn't love a fuzzy plant.

Pearly everlasting is a member of the largest dicot family on the planet, the asters. As such, what appears to be single flowers doing their best imitation of a sunny side up egg is actually a collection of many tiny flowers clustered together to look like one big one. In a sense, this is a form of floral mimicry.

What is most unique about pearly everlasting is that it is dioecious. Individual plants produce disks that are either male or female. I can't really think of other asters that adopt this strategy. And what an awesome strategy it is. Being dioecious means cross-pollination. The reproductive disk flowers are those yellow ones in the center. The pearly white outer ring of each inflorescence is actually made up of a dense cluster of involucre.

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Did I mention this plant is fuzzy? Dense trichomes cover the stem and underside of each leaf. Hairs like this are adaptations to reduce water loss and overheating. However, there is evidence that in pearly everlasting, these hairs can also reduce feeding by spittlebugs. Nymphs looking for a tasty plant to drill into cannot seem to penetrate the dense growth of trichomes, which means each pearly everlasting gets to hold on to its sap.

Again, I can't speak highly enough about this species. It is native to much of North America and, in this writers opinion, should be in the drier portions of every native garden. All you need are a handful of seeds and a small population of pearly everlasting will soon be keeping you company.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1] [2]