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Botanical Sex: 9 Alluring Adaptations

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Yes, many plants use the birds and the bees to move pollen from one flower to another, but sometimes this “simple act” is not so simple. Some plants have stepped up their sexual game and use explosions, entrapment, or deception to ensure the perpetuation of their species. Learn about these and other amazing adaptations plants have developed to try and seal the deal.

  • Sexual deception

    Bee orchids (genus Ophrys) are an absolutely stunning example of reproductive evolution. Sometimes referred to as "prostitute orchids," the plants' flowers mimic the appearance, scent, and often even the fuzzy texture of a female bee. Lured by pheromone-like chemicals, unwitting male bees engage in "pseudocopulation" with the seductive flowers. While the bee is *cough* otherwise engaged, the flower releases sticky packets of pollen, known as pollinia, on the insect's head or body. When the bee falls for the trick again with another flower, he deposits the pollinia and thus pollinates the new flower. Unlike the more traditional forms of flower-bee interactions where the insect receives nectar for its efforts, the deceived bees get nothing in return from these orchids and actually expend a lot of energy in their futile mating. Amazingly, nearly every Ophrys species attracts a single, unique pollinator and is dependent on its particular insect species for survival.

  • Catch and release

    Cuckoopint plants (Arum maculatum) also victimize their insect pollinators, but mostly by wasting their time. The tiny flowers are borne in a column (called a spadix) with the female flowers at the bottom and the male flowers above them. The spadix is surrounded by a single petal-like appendage known as a spathe, which has hairlike structures on the inside, above the male flowers. Not only does this unusual flower structure emit a foul, fecal smell, but it also generates heat to attract a number of poo-loving insects. As they climb around on the slick spathe, they slide down into its interior and are kept from escaping by the hairs on the inside. Eventually the hairs relax and the insects are able to escape past the male flowers, which cover them in pollen. When the gullible insects fall again into other cuckoopints, their pollen-covered bodies rub against the female flowers at the bottom of the structure—pollinating them—and the cycle repeats itself.

  • Stinking corpses

    While most people think of pollinators as only bees and butterflies, beetles and flies can also do a good job if properly motivated! Enter the corpse flower. Corpse flowers, including the massive Rafflesia and Amorphophallus titanum (and several other species), are able to produce rancid, malodorous fumes to attract carrion-loving insects. Several such flowers even complete the effect with mottled red and brown petals and oozing structures to look like rotting flesh. Seeking a tasty meal, scavenging beetles and flies investigate the flowers and inadvertently transfer pollen from one stinking flower to the next.

  • It’s a breeze

    While many plants rely on pollinators, quite a few trees and most grasses save on the cost of nectar and showy petals by simply using the wind to spread their pollen. The flowers of these plants are usually extremely reduced, consisting of the bare necessities required for sperms to meet egg (fun fact: most plants require two sperms for fertilization). Since wind is really unpredictable, wind-pollinated plants typically make a TON of pollen to compensate, and many of them are responsible for your seasonal allergies. Some plants even make their flowers before other species have begun to leaf out in early spring to reduce the physical barriers the pollen might encounter on its breezy trip through the forest.

  • What’s the buzz?

    Sonication, or buzz pollination, is a quirky pollination strategy employed by a number of bee-pollinated plants, including tomatoes and shooting stars. The flowers of these plants have specialized anthers (the pollen-producing structures) that only release their pollen if properly vibrated by a buzzing bee. Some even require a certain buzz frequency and thus limit their pollen to specific sizes of bees. Interestingly, honeybees cannot buzz pollinate and so the act is limited to certain solitary bees and bumblebees. Plants that require sonication are usually self-fertile, and the adaptation serves to limit the amount of self-pollen (and thus inbreeding) the flower might receive if wind or other motions could dislodge the pollen. By allowing only certain pollinators access to the precious pollen, these plants increase the chances that a suitable insect will carry their pollen out to other flowers and increase the population's genetic diversity through out-crossing. Fun fact: plant breeders hand-pollinate these plants with the help of electronic toothbrushes and special vibrators to simulate the bee's buzzing.

  • By the pale moonlight

    There are four species of yucca moths, each of which is the unique pollinator of a species of Yucca. These plants and insects are one of the most intimate and famous examples of coevolution and mutualism; their life cycles are fully dependent on one another. The moths emerge from the soil when the night-blooming yucca flowers open. The insects mate, and then the female moth forms a ball of pollen from one flower and inserts it into the stigma of a second flower. With this act of pollination complete, she then lays her eggs in the ovary of that flower, ensuring that her progeny will develop inside the fruit she facilitated. The adult moths quickly die after mating. The moth larvae grow inside the fruit and eat about half of the seeds within it. When the fruits fall to the ground, the larvae finish their development in the soil, and the remaining seeds are left to grow into new yuccas.

  • Pollinators are friends, not food

    Insect-pollinated carnivorous plants have the special challenge of not consuming their helpful pollinators. To avoid such accidental ingestion, many carnivorous species, such as the Venus flytrap, bear their flowers on long stalks to keep them as far away from their traps as possible. Similarly, some pitcher plants have their pitcher traps near the ground to attract crawling insects and leave the airways free for flying insects seeking their flowers. Other carnivorous plants use scents or patterns in an attempt to direct specific types of prey to their traps and to guide pollinators safely to their flowers. Finally, some species avoid the problem altogether by self-pollinating or spreading vegetatively!

  • *Poof!*

    Hummingbirds are the most well-known avian pollinators, but they are not the only ones! Certain tropical tanagers facilitate the pollination of plants in the genus Axinaea through an unusual mechanism known as puff pollination. The unique flowers of these plants have special juicy organs attached to their stamens (male parts) that look like fruit to the birds. When a bird grasps the "food body" to eat it, it receives a blast of pollen in its face. Fascinatingly, this "puff pollination" is completely dependent on the power of the bird's beak, as the fruitlike structure and the anther form something like a turkey baster, or bellow. It is thought that the birds complete the pollination cycle when they visit other flowers, but it is possible that the mechanism simply serves as a means to get the pollen airborne for wind pollination.

  • No help necessary

    Some plants are self-compatible, meaning that their own pollen can successfully pollinate flowers on the same plant. To reduce inbreeding, many self-compatible plants use this ability only as a last resort and often employ a number of strategies to give priority to pollen from other plants. However, some self-compatible plants have evolved to specifically pollinate their own flowers. This allows the plants to thrive in areas with limited pollinators, such as at very high elevations, and perpetuates traits that are well-adapted to the habitat requirements. The self-pollination is also useful in plant populations with few flowers or with plants that are spaced far apart. Obligatory self-pollinating plants have a diverse array of strategies to facilitate the union of the pollen with the female stigma. Some employ oils to slide the pollen from the anther to the awaiting stigma, or they liquefy the pollen to the same end. Others physically move the anther to directly contact the stigma; the flower of one orchid species (Holcoglossum amesianum) even twists 360 degrees against gravity to self-pollinate. Some flowers, especially legumes of the genus Lespedeza, don’t even open to prevent insects from entering! Weird stuff!