Last week I made an effort to convince you to add a prickly pear or two to your water-wise gardens. One standout reason to do this is their strikingly beautiful flowers. Apart from being lovely to look at, many prickly pear flowers have a distinct feature that makes them quite fascinating. A demonstration of this feature can be seen in the following video.
Stamen movement in response to touch is a characteristic of many species in the genus Opuntia. It isn’t exclusive to Opuntia, however, and can also be seen in Berberis vulgaris, Portulaca grandiflora, Talinum patens, among others. Knowing this makes me want to touch the stamens of any flower I can find just to see what will happen.
The response of stamens to touch has been known for at least a few centuries, but recent research is helping us gain a better understanding of how and why this phenomenon occurs. In general, this movement is thought to assist in the process of cross-pollination. In some cases it may also aid in self-pollination. Additionally, it can have the effect of protecting pollen and nectar from “robbers” (insects that visit flowers to consume these resources but that do not provide a pollination service). Quite a bit of research has been done on this topic, so to simplify things I will be focusing on a paper published in a 2013 issue of the journal, Flora.
In their paper entitled, Intriguing thigmonastic (sensitive) stamens in the plains prickly pear, Cota-Sanchez, et al. studied the flowers of numerous Opuntia polyacantha individuals found in three populations south of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Their objective was to “build basic knowledge about this rather unique staminal movement in plants and its putative role in pollination.” They did this by conducting two separate studies. The first involved observing flower phenology and flower visitors and determining whether the staminal movement is a nasty (movement in a set direction independent of the external stimulus) or a tropism (movement in the direction of the external stimulus). The second involved using high-powered microscopes to analyze the morphology of the stamens to determine any anatomical traits involved in this movement. While the results of the second study are interesting, for the purposes of this post I have chosen to focus only on the findings of the first study.
An important note about the flowers of O. polyacantha is that they are generally protandrous, meaning that the anthers of a single flower release pollen before the stigmas of that same flower are receptive. This encourages cross-pollination. An individual flower is only in bloom for about 12 hours (sometimes as long as 30 hours), however flowering doesn’t occur all at once. The plants in this study flowered for several weeks (from the second week of June to the middle of July).
To determine whether the staminal movement is a nasty or a tropism, the researchers observed insects visiting the flowers. They also manually stimulated the stamens with various objects including small twigs, pencils, and fingers, touching either the inner sides of the filaments (facing the style) or the outer sides (facing the petals). In every observation, the stamens moved in the same direction, “inwards and towards the central part of the flower.” This “consistent unidirectional movement, independent of the area stimulated” led the researchers to categorize the staminal movement of O. polyacantha as thigmonastic. They also observed that staminal movement slowed as the blooming period of an individual flower was coming to an end – “and finally when all the anthers had dehisced, the anthers rested in a clustered position, marking the end of anthesis.” Furthermore, it was observed that “filaments move relatively faster in sunny, warm conditions as opposed to cloudy, cold and rainy days.”
The researchers went on to discuss unique features of the stamens of O. polyacantha. Specifically, the lower anthers contain significantly more pollen than the upper anthers. When the stamens are stimulated, their movement towards the center of the flower results in the lower anthers becoming hidden below the upper anthers. They also noted that small insects less than 5 millimeters in size did not trigger stamen movement. Further observations of the insect vistors helped explain these phenomena.
A “broad diversity of insects” was observed visiting the flowers, from a variety of bees (bumblebees, honeybees, sweat bees, and mining bees) to bee flies, beetles, and ants. The large bees were determined to be the effective pollinators of this species of prickly pear. Their large weight and size allows them to push down through the upper anthers to the more pollen-abundant anthers below. After feeding on pollen and nectar, they climb out from the stamens and up to the stigma where they take off, leaving the flower and depositing pollen as they go. Because the bees are visiting numerous flowers in a single flight and the flowers they visit are protandrous, pollen can be transferred from one flower to another and self-pollination can be avoided.
Beetles were observed to be the most common visitors to the flowers; however, they were not seen making contact with the stigma and instead simply fed on pollen and left. Ants also commonly visit the flowers but largely remain outside of the petals, feeding from “extranuptial nectaries.” In short, beetles and ants are not recognized as reliable pollinators of this plant.
Similar results involving two other Opuntia species were found by Clemens Schlindwein and Dieter Wittmann. You can read about their study here.
There are lots of flower anatomy terms in this post. Refresh your memory by visiting another Awkward Botany post: 14 Botanical Terms for Flower Anatomy.
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