Summer of Weeds: Common Mullein

The fuzzy, gray-green leaves of common mullein are familiar and friendly enough that it can be hard to think of this plant as a weed. Verbascum thapsus is a member of the figwort family and is known by dozens of common names, including great mullein, Aaron’s rod, candlewick, velvet dock, blanket leaf, feltwort, and flannel plant. Its woolly leaves are warm and inviting and have a history of being used as added padding and insulation, tucked inside of clothing and shoes. In Wild Edible and Useful Plants of Idaho, Ray Vizgirdas writes, “the dried stalks are ideal for use as hand-drills to start fires; the flowers and leaves produce yellow dye; as a toilet paper substitute, the large fresh leaves are choice.”

Common mullein is a biennial that was introduced to eastern North America from Eurasia in the 1700’s as a medicinal plant and fish poison. By the late 1800’s it had reached the other side of the continent. In its first year it forms a rosette of woolly, oblong and/or lance-shaped leaves. After overwintering it produces a single flower stalk up to 6 feet tall. The woolly leaves continue along the flower stalk, gradually getting smaller in size until they reach the inflorescence, which is a long, dense, cylindrical spike. Sometimes the stalk branches out to form multiple inflorescences.

First year seedlings of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

The inflorescence doesn’t flower all at once; instead, a handful of flowers open at a time starting at the bottom of the spike and moving up in an irregular pattern. The process takes several weeks to complete. The flowers are about an inch wide and sulfur yellow with five petals. They have both female and male sex parts but are protogynous, meaning the female organs mature before the male organs. This encourages cross-pollination by insects. However, if pollination isn’t successful by the end of the day, the flowers self-pollinate as the petals close. Each flower produces a capsule full of a few hundred seeds, and each plant can produce up to 180,000 seeds. The seeds can remain viable for over 100 years, sitting in the soil waiting for just the right moment to sprout.

Common mullein is a friend of bare, recently disturbed soil. It is rare to see this plant growing in thickly vegetated areas. As an early successional plant, its populations can be abundant immediately after a disturbance, but they do not persist once other plants have filled in the gaps. Instead they wait in seed form for the next disturbance that will give them the opportunity to rise again. They can be a pest in gardens and farm fields due to regular soil disturbance, and are often abundant in pastures and rangelands because livestock avoid eating their hairy leaves. Because of its ephemeral nature, it is generally not considered a major weed; however, it is on Colorado’s noxious weed list.

Several features make common mullein a great example of a drought-adapted plant. Its fleshy, branching taproot can reach deep into the soil to find moisture, the thick hairs on the leaves help reduce water loss via transpiration, and the way the leaves are arranged and angled on the stalk can help direct rain water down toward the roots.

Common mullein has an extensive history of ethnobotanical uses. Medicinally it has been used internally to treat coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and kidney infections; and as a poultice to treat warts, slivers, and swelling. The dried flower stalks have been used to make torches, and the fuzzy leaves have been used as tinder for fire-making and wicks in lamps.

The hairy leafscape of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

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Quote of the Week:

From Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Here’s why opportunistic plants are so successful. When we clear land or carve a forest into fragments, we’re creating lots of open niches. All that sunny space and bare soil is just crying out to be colongized by light- and fertlity-absorbing green matter. Nature will quickly conjure up as much biomass as possible to capture the bounty, by seeding low-growing ‘weeds’ into a clearing or, better yet, sprouting a tall thicket stretching into all three dimensions to more effectively absorb light and develop deep roots. … When humans make a clearing, nature leaps in, working furiously to rebuild an intact humus and fungal layer, harvest energy, and reconstruct all the cycles and connections that have been severed. A thicket of fast-growing pioneer plants, packing a lot of biomass into a small space, is a very effective way to do this. … And [nature] doesn’t care if a nitrogen fixer or a soil-stabilizing plant arrived via continental drift or a bulldozer’s treads, as long as it can quickly stitch a functioning ecosystem together.

Maize Anatomy and the Anatomy of a Maze

Commonly known as corn throughout much of North America, maize is a distinctive emblem of the harvest season. It is one of the most economically important crops in the world (the third most important cereal after rice and wheat) and has scads of uses from food to feed to fuel. The story of its domestication serves as a symbol of human ingenuity, and its plasticity in both form and utility is a remarkable example of why plants are so incredible.

The genus Zea is in the grass family (Poaceae) and consists of five species: Z. diploperennis, Z. perennis, Z. luxurians, Z. nicaraguensis, and Z. mays. Maize is the common name of Zea mays subsp. mays, which is one of four Z. mays subspecies and the only domesticated taxon in the genus. All other taxa are commonly and collectively referred to as teosintes.

The domestication of maize, apart from being an impressive feat, has long been a topic of research and a challenging story to tease apart. The current understanding is that maize was first domesticated around 9000 years ago in the Balsas River valley in southern Mexico, the main progenitor being Zea mays subsp. parviglumis. It is astonishing how drastically different in appearance teosintes are from modern day maize, but it also explains why determining the crop wild relative of maize was so difficult.

Teosinte, teosinte-maize hybrid, and maize - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Teosinte, teosinte-maize hybrid, and maize – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Teosintes and maize both have tall central stalks; however, teosintes generally have multiple lateral branches which give them a more shrubby appearance. In teosinte, each of the lateral branches and the central stalk terminate in a cluster of male flowers; female flowers are produced at the nodes along the lateral branches. In maize, male flowers are borne at the top of the central stalk, and lateral branches are replaced by short stems that terminate in female flowers. This is where the ears develop.

Ears – or clusters of fruits – are blatantly different between teosintes and maize. To start with, teosinte produces a mere 5 to 12 fruits along a short, narrow cob (flower stalk). The fruits are angular and surrounded in a hard casing. Maize cobs are considerably larger both in length and girth and are covered in as many as 500 or more fruits (or kernels), which are generally more rounded and have a softer casing. They also remain on the cob when they are ripe, compared to teosinte ears, which shatter.

Evolutionary biologist, Sean B. Carroll, writes in a New York Times article about the amazing task of “transform[ing] a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop.” These “early cultivators had to notice among their stands of plants variants in which the nutritious kernels were at least partially exposed, or whose ears held together better, or that had more rows of kernels, and they had to selectively breed them.” Carroll explains that this “initial domestication process which produced the basic maize form” would have taken several hundred to a few thousand years. The maize that we know and love today is a much different plant than its ancestors, and it is still undergoing regular selection for traits that we find desirable.

Female inflorescence (or "ear") of Zea mays subsp. mays - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Female inflorescence (or “ear”) of Zea mays subsp. mays – photo credit: wikimedia commons

To better understand and appreciate this process, it helps to have a basic grasp of maize anatomy. Maize is an impressive grass in that it regularly reaches from 6 to 10 feet tall and sometimes much taller. It is shallow rooted, but is held up by prop or brace roots – adventitious roots that emerge near the base of the main stalk. The stalk is divided into sections called internodes, and at each node a leaf forms. Leaf sheaths wrap around the entirety of the stalk, and leaf blades are long, broad, and alternately arranged. Each leaf has a prominent midrib. The stalk terminates in a many-branched inflorescence called a tassel.

Maize Anatomy 101 - image credit: Canadian Goverment

Maize Anatomy 101 – image credit: Canadian Government

Maize is monoecious, which means that it has separate male and female flowers that occur on the same plant. The tassel is where the male flowers are located. A series of spikelets occur along both the central branch and the lateral branches of the tassel. A spikelet consists of a pair of bracts called glumes, upper and lower lemmas and paleas (which are also bracts), and two simple florets composed of prominent stamens. The tassel produces and sheds tens of thousands of pollen grains which are dispersed by wind and gravity to the female inflorescences below and to neighboring plants.

Female inflorescences (ears) occur at the top of short stems that originate from leaf axils in the midsection of the stalk. Leaves that develop along this reduced stem wrap around the ears forming the husk. Spikelets form in rows along the flower stalk (cob) within the husk. The florets of these spikelets produce long styles that extend beyond the top of the husk. This cluster of styles is known as the silk. When pollen grains land on silk stigmas, pollen tubes grow down the entire length of the silks to reach the embryo sac. Successful fertilization produces a kernel.

The kernel – or fruit – is known botanically as a caryopsis, which is the standard fruit type of the grass family. Because the fruit wall and seed are fused together so tightly, maize kernels are commonly referred to as seeds. The entire plant can be used to produce feed for animals, but it is the kernel that is generally consumed (in innumerable ways) by humans.

There is so much more to be said about maize. It’s a lot to take in. Rather than delve too much further at this point, let’s explore one of the other ways that maize is used by humans to create something that has become another feature of the fall season – the corn maze.

Entering the corn maze at The Farmstead in Meridian, Idaho

Exploring the corn maze at The Farmstead in Meridian, Idaho





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Bat Pollinated Flowers of a Mexican Columnar Cactus

Pollination syndromes – suites of floral traits used to determine potential pollinators and routes of pollination – have been informative in studying plant-pollinator interactions, but are generally too simplistic to tell the full story. Most flowering plants are generalists when it comes to pollinators, whereas pollination syndromes imply specialization. Not all pollinators are created equal though, and some may be more effective at pollinating particular plants than others. In fact, occasionally pollination syndromes ring true and a predicted plant-pollinator combination turns out to be the most effective and reliable interaction.

According to a study published in American Journal of Botany by Ibarra-Cerdeña, et al., Stenocereus queretaroensis, a species of columnar cactus endemic to western Mexico, adheres to this scenario. Stenocereus is a genus in a group of columnar and tree-like cacti called the Pachycereeae tribe. Cactus in this group are generally bat pollinated; however, their flowers are typically visited by various species of birds and insects as well, and in some cases, bats are not the primary pollinator. In their introduction, the authors note that specialization appears to be more common in tropical latitudes, and chiropterophilic (bat pollinated) columnar cacti that occur in temperate regions can be comparatively more generalized. This is because “extratropical chiropterophilic cacti appear to be faced with unpredictable seasonal year-to-year variation in pollinators,” while “cacti in tropical regions” experience “highly reliable seasonal availability of nectar-feeding bats, thereby leading to a temporally stable pollination system.”

Stenocereus queretaroensis is a massive cactus, reaching up to ten meters tall. Several vertical stems rise from a short, stocky, central trunk. Each stem has up to eight distinctive ribs and averages around 15 centimeters in diameter. Groupings of white to grey spines up to four centimeters long appear along the ribs. Flowers are light-colored, around 10 to 14 centimeters in length, and occur along the upper half of the stems, extended well beyond the spines. Flowers open at night – producing abundant nectar – and close by the afternoon the following day. Floral characteristics led the authors of this study to predict bats to be the main pollinator, and they set up a series of experiments to test this.

Stenocereus queretaroensis - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Stenocereus queretaroensis – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Part of their experiment consisted of five treatments involving 130 flowers on 75 plants. One group of flowers was bagged and allowed to self-pollinate naturally, while another group was bagged and self-pollinated manually. A third group was left exposed during the night but bagged in the morning, while a fourth group was bagged during the night and exposed during the daytime. The final group was left alone. For each of these five treatments, aborted flowers and mature fruits were counted and seed set was determined. Nectar samples were taken from a separate group of flowers at two hour intervals from 8:00 PM to 8:00 AM, after which no nectar was produced. A camera was also used to document floral visits. Visits were deemed “legitimate” when the “visitor’s body came in contact with anthers and/or stigma” and “illegitimate” when “no contact with anthers or stigma” was made.

The researchers found S. queretaroensis to be “incapable of self-pollination,” as no fruit set occurred for the first two treatments. The control group and the nocturnally exposed group had nearly identical results, producing significantly more fruits with greater seed set compared to the nocturnally bagged group. During the day, flowers were visited by four species of birds (two hummingbirds, a woodpecker, and an oriole) and several species of bees (mainly honey bees). During the night, apart from illegitimate visits from a nectar robbing hawkmoth, one species of bat was the dominant floral visitor, and the majority (93.8%) of the visits were legitimate. This bat species was Leptonycteris curasoae, the southern long-nosed bat.

Leptonycteris curasoae - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Leptonycteris curasoae – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The abundance of nectar-feeding bats was monitored in the study area over a four year period, and L. curasoae was by far the most abundant species throughout the study period. Nectar produced in the flowers of S. queretaroensis was at its maximum around midnight, which seemed to correlate with observations of bat visits. Even though daytime visitors appeared to contribute to fruit and seed set, the nocturnal treatment produced significantly more fruit with significantly higher seed set, suggesting that bats are the more efficient pollinator. Insects visiting during the daytime, when nectar was decreasingly available, were most likely robbing pollen.

The authors acknowledge that for most plant species, “a wide array of taxonomically diverse fauna such as insects, birds, and mammals usually serve as potential pollinators,” and that “generalized pollination systems are more frequent than specialized ones.” However, in this case, “a close association between L. curasoae and S. queretaroensis [suggests] that the chiropterophilic syndrome is still a useful model.”

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Bats As Pollinators – An Introduction to Chiropterophily

Most plants that rely on animals to assist in pollination look to insects. In general, insects are abundant, easy to please, and efficient at transferring pollen. Because insect pollination is such a common scenario, it is easy to overlook pollination that is carried out by vertebrates. Birds are the most prominent pollinator among vertebrates, but mammals participate, too. The most common mammal pollinator is the bat.

About a fifth of all mammal species on the planet are bats, with species estimates numbering in the 1200-1300 range. Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. They are not blind, nor are they flying rodents, and they are not going to suck your blood (except in very rare cases!). Most bats eat insects, but a small, significant group of them are nectarivorous. Their main food source is the nectar produced within flowers. In the process of feeding, these bats pollinate plants.

Out of 18 families in the order Chiroptera, only two include species with morphologies that set them apart as nectar-feeders. The family Pteropodidae, known commonly as Old World fruit bats or flying foxes, occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia, Australia, Papa New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands. The family Phyllostomidae, known commonly as American leaf-nosed bats, occurs in tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. For simplicity’s sake, the former are referred to as Old World bats, and the latter as New World bats. While both groups are similar in that they consist of species that feed on nectar, they are only distantly related, and thus the nectar feeding species in these families have distinct behavioral and morphological differences.

Grey headed flying fox photo credit: wikimedia commons

Grey headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), a floral visiting bat from Australia (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

More than 500 species of plants, spanning 67 plant families, are pollinated by bats. This pollination syndrome is known as chiropterophily. In general, flowers that use this approach tend to be white or dull in color, open at night, rich with nectar, and musty or rotten smelling. They are generally tubular, cup shaped, or otherwise radially symmetrical and are often suspended atop tall stalks or prominently located on branches or trunks. In a review published in Annals of Botany, Theodore Fleming, et al. state “flower placement away from foliage and nocturnal anthesis [blooming] are the unifying features of the bat pollination syndrome,” while all other characteristics are highly variable among species. The family Fabaceae contains the highest number of bat-pollinated genera. Cactaceae, Malvaceae, and Bignoniaceae follow closely behind.

The characteristics of bat pollinated flowers vary widely partly because the bats that visit them are so diverse. Between the two bat families there are similarities in their nectar-feeding species, including an elongated rostrum, teeth that are smaller in number and size, and a long tongue with hair-like projections on the tip. Apart from that, New World bats are much smaller than Old World bats, and their rostrums and tongues are much longer relative to the size of their bodies. New World bats have the ability to hover in front of flowers, while Old World bats land on flowers to feed. Old World bats do not have the ability to use echolocation to spot flowers, while New World bats do. Fleming, et al. conclude, “because of these differences, we might expect plants visited by specialized nectar-feeding [New World bats] to produce smaller flowers with smaller nectar volumes per flower than those visited by their [Old World bat] counterparts.”

Pollination by bats is a relatively new phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking. Flowers that are currently pollinated by bats most likely evolved from flowers that were once pollinated by insects. Some may have evolved from flowers that were previously bird pollinated. The question is, why adopt this strategy? Flowers that are bat pollinated are “expensive” to make. They are typically much bigger than insect pollinated flowers, and they contain large amounts of pollen and abundant, nutrient-rich nectar. Due to resource constraints, many plants are restricted from developing such flowers, but those that do may find themselves at an advantage with bats as their pollinator. For one, hairy bat bodies collect profuse numbers of pollen grains, which are widely distributed as they visit numerous flowers throughout the night. In this way, bats can be excellent outcrossers. They also travel long distances, which means they can move pollen from one population of plants to an otherwise isolated neighboring population. This serves to maintain healthy genetic diversity among populations, something that is increasingly important as plant populations become fragmented due to human activity.

Pollinating bats are also economically important to humans, as several plants that are harvested for their fruits, fibers, or timber rely on bats for pollination. For example, bat pollinated Eucalyptus species are felled for timber in Australia, and the fruits of Durio zibethinus in Southeast Asia form after flowers are first pollinated by bats. Also, the wild relatives of bananas (Musa spp.) are bat pollinated, as is the plant used for making tequila (Agave tequilana).

Durio sp. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The flowers of durian (Durio sp.), trees native to Southeast Asia, are pollinated by bats (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

There is still much to learn about nectarivorous bats and the flowers they visit. It is clear that hundreds of species are using bats to move their pollen, but the process of adopting this strategy and the advantages of doing so remain ripe for discovery. Each bat-plant relationship has its own story to tell. For now, here is a fun video about the bat that pollinates Agave tequilana:

Attract Pollinators, Grow More Food

It seems obvious to say that on farms that rely on insect pollinators for crops to set fruit, having more pollinators around can lead to higher yields. Beyond that, there are questions to consider. How many pollinators and which ones? To what extent can yields be increased? How does the size and location of the farm come into play? Etc. Thanks to a recent study, one that Science News appropriately referred to as “massive,” some of these questions are being addressed, offering compelling evidence that yields grow dramatically simply by increasing and diversifying pollinator populations.

It is also stating the obvious to say that some farms are more productive than others. The difference between a high yield farm and a low yield farm in a given crop system is referred to as a yield gap. Yield gaps are the result of a combination of factors, including soil health, climate, water availability, and management. For crops that depend on insects for pollination, reduced numbers of pollinators can contribute to yield gaps. This five year study by Lucas A. Garibaldi, et al., pubished in a January 2016 issue of Science, involving 344 fields and 33 different crops on farms located in Africa, Asia, and Latin America demonstrates the importance of managing for pollinator abundance and diversity.

The study locations, which ranged from 0.1 hectare to 327.2 hecatares, were separated into large and small farms. Small farms were considered 2 ha and under. In the developing world, more than 2 billion people rely on farms of this size, and many of these farms have low yields. In this study, low yielding farms on average had yields that were a mere 47% of high yielding farms. Researchers wanted to know to what degree enhancing pollinator density and diversity could help increase yields and close this yield gap.

By performing coordinated experiments for five years on farms all over the world and by using a standardized sampling protocol, the researchers were able to determine that higher pollinator densities could close the yield gap on small farms by 24%. For larger farms, such yield increases were seen only when there was both higher pollinator density and diversity. Honeybees were found to be the dominant pollinator in larger fields, and having additional pollinator species present helped to enhance yields.

These results suggest that, as the authors state, “there are large opportunities to increase flower-visitor densities and yields” on low yielding farms to better match the levels of “the best farms.” Poor performing farms can be improved simply by managing for increased pollinator populations. The authors advise that such farms employ “a combination of practices,” such as “sowing flower strips and planting hedgerows, providing nesting resources, [practicing] more targeted use of pesticides, and/or [restoring] semi-natural and natural areas adjacent to crops.” The authors conclude that this case study offers evidence that “ecological intensification [improving agriculture by enhancing ecological functions and biodiversity] can create mutually beneficial scenarios between biodiversity and crop yields worldwide.”

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

A study like this, while aimed at improving crop yields in developing nations, should be viewed as evidence for the importance of protecting and strengthening pollinator populations throughout the world. Modern, industrial farms that plant monocultures from one edge of the field to the other and that include little or no natural area – or weedy, overgrown area for that matter – are helping to place pollinator populations in peril. In this study, after considering numerous covariables, the authors concluded that, “among all the variables we tested, flower-visitor density was the most important predictor of crop yield.”

Back to stating the obvious, if pollinators aren’t present yields decline, and as far as I’m aware, we don’t have a suitable replacement for what nature does best.

This study is available to read free of charge at ResearchGate. If you are interested in improving pollinator habitat in your neighborhood, check out these past Awkward Botany posts: Planting for Pollinators, Ground Nesting Bees in the Garden, and Hellstrip Pollinator Garden.

Year of Pollination: Botanical Terms for Pollination, part two

“The stage is set for reproduction when, by one means or another, compatible pollen comes to rest on a flower’s stigma. Of the two cells within a pollen grain, one is destined to grow into a long tube, a pollen tube, that penetrates the pistil’s tissues in search of a microscopic opening in one of the ovules, located in the ovary. … The second of a pollen grain’s cells divides to become two sperm that move through the pollen tube and enter the ovule.” – Brian Capon, Botany for Gardeners

“Once pollination occurs, the next step is fertilization. Pollen deposited on the sticky stigma generates a fine pollen tube that conveys the sperm through the style to the ovary, where the ovules, or eggs, have developed. After fertilization, the rest of the flower parts wither and are shed as the ovary swells with seed development.” – Rick Imes, The Practical Botanist

Pollination tells the story of a pollen grain leaving an anther by some means – be it wind, water, or animal – and finding itself deposited atop a stigma. As long as the pollen and stigma are compatible, the sex act proceeds. In other words, the pollen grain germinates. One of the pollen grain’s cells – the tube nucleus – grows down the length of the style, forming a tube through which two sperm nuclei can travel. The sperm nuclei enter the ovary and then, by way of a micropyle, enter an ovule. Inside the ovule is the female gametophyte (also referred to as the embryo sac). One sperm nucleus unites with the egg nucleus to form a zygote. The remaining sperm nucleus unites with two polar nuclei to form a triploid cell which becomes the endosperm. The sex act is complete.

The illustration on the left includes the cross-section of a pistil showing the inside the ovary where pollen tubes have made their way to the ovules. The illustration on the right shows pollen grains germinating on a stigma and their pollen tubes begining to work their way down the style. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The illustration on the left includes the cross section of a pistil showing the inside of the ovary where pollen tubes have made their way to the ovules. The illustration on the right shows pollen grains germinating on a stigma and pollen tubes as they work their way down the style. (image credit: wikimedia commons)

The zygote divides by mitosis to become an embryo. The endosperm nourishes the development of the embryo. The ovule matures into a seed, and the ovary develops into a fruit. During this process, the remaining parts of the flower wither and fall away. In some cases, certain flower parts remain attached to the fruit or become part of the fruit. The flesh of an apple, for example, is formed from the carpels and the receptacle (the thickened end of a flower stem – peduncle – to which the parts of a flower are attached).

As the seed matures, the endosperm is either used up or persists to help nourish the embryonic plant after germination. Mature seeds that are abundant in endosperm are called albuminous. Examples include wheat, corn, and other grasses and grains. Mature seeds with endosperm that is either highly reduced or absent are called exalbuminous – beans and peas, for example. Certain species – like orchids – do not produce endosperm at all.

The cross section of a corn kernel showing the endosperm and the embryo (image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

The cross section of a corn kernel showing the endosperm and the embryo (image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

It is fascinating to consider that virtually every seed we encounter is the result of a single pollen grain making its way from an anther to a stigma, growing a narrow tube down a style, and fertilizing a single ovule. [Of course there are always exceptions. Some plants can produce seeds asexually. See apomixis.] Think of this the next time you are eating corn on the cob or popcorn – each kernel is a single seed – or slicing open a pomegranate to reveal the hundreds of juicy seeds inside. Or better yet, when you are eating the flesh or drinking the milk of a coconut. You are enjoying the solid and liquid endosperm of one very large seed.

Much more can be said about pollination and the events surrounding it, but we’ll save that for future posts. The “Year of Pollination” may be coming to an end, but there remains much to discover and report concerning the subject. For now, here is a fun video to help us review what we’ve learned so far:


Also, take a look at this TED talk: The Hidden Beauty of Pollination by Louie Schwartzberg

And finally, just as the “Year of Pollination” was coming to an end I was introduced to a superb blog called The Amateur Anthecologist. Not only did it teach me that “anthecology” is a term synonymous with pollination biology, it has a great series of posts called “A Year of Pollinators” that showcases photographs and information that the author has collected for various groups of pollinators over the past year. The series includes posts about Bees, Wasps, Moths and ButterfliesFlies, and Beetles, Bugs, and Spiders.

Year of Pollination: Botanical Terms for Pollination, part one

When I began this series of posts, I didn’t have a clear vision of what it would be. I had a budding interest in pollination biology and was anxious to learn all that I could. I figured that calling 2015 the “Year of Pollination” and writing a bunch of pollination-themed posts would help me do that. And it has. However, now that the year is coming to a close, I realize that I neglected to start at the beginning. Typical me.

What is pollination? Why does it matter? The answers to these questions seemed pretty obvious; so obvious, in fact, that I didn’t even think to ask them. That being said, for these last two “Year of Pollination” posts (and the final posts of the year), I am going back to the basics by defining pollination and exploring some of the terms associated with it. One thing is certain, there is still much to be discovered in the field of pollination biology. Making those discoveries starts with a solid understanding of the basics.

Pollination simply defined is the transfer of pollen from an anther to a stigma or – in gymnosperms – from a male cone to a female cone. Essentially, it is one aspect of plant sex, albeit a very important one. Sexual reproduction is one way that plants multiply. Many plants can also reproduce asexually. Asexual reproduction typically requires less energy and resources – no need for flowers, pollen, nectar, seeds, fruit, etc. – and can be accomplished by a single individual without any outside help; however, there is no gene mixing (asexually reproduced offspring are clones) and dispersal is limited (consider the “runners” on a strawberry plant producing plantlets adjacent to the mother plant).

To simplify things, we will consider only pollination that occurs among angiosperms (flowering plants); pollination/plant sex in gymnosperms will be discussed at another time. Despite angiosperms being the youngest group of plants evolutionarily speaking, it is the largest group and thus the type we encounter most.

A flower is a modified shoot and the reproductive structure of a flowering plant. Flowers are made up of a number of parts, the two most important being the reproductive organs. The androecium is a collective term for the stamens (what we consider the male sex organs). A stamen is composed of a filament (or stalk) topped with an anther – where pollen (plant sperm) is produced. The gynoecium is the collective term for the pistil (what we consider the female sex organ). This organ is also referred to as a carpel or carpels; this quick guide helps sort that out. A pistil consists of the ovary (which contains the ovules), and a style (or stalk) topped with a stigma – where pollen is deposited. In some cases, flowers have both male and female reproductive organs. In other cases, they have one or the other.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

When pollen is moved from an anther of one plant to a stigma of another plant, cross-pollination has occurred. When pollen is moved from an anther of one plant to a stigma of the same plant, self-pollination has occurred. Cross-pollination allows for gene transfer, and thus novel genotypes. Self-pollination is akin to asexual production in that offspring are practically identical to the parent. However, where pollinators are limited or where plant populations are small and there is little chance for cross-pollination, self-pollination enables reproduction.

Many species of plants are unable to self-pollinate. In fact, plants have evolved strategies to ensure cross-pollination. In some cases, the stamens and pistils mature at different times so that when pollen is released the stigmas are not ready to receive it or, conversely, the stigmas are receptive before the pollen has been released. In other cases, stigmas are able to recognize their own pollen and will reject it or inhibit it from germinating. Other strategies include producing flowers with stamens and pistils that differ dramatically in size so as to discourage pollen transfer, producing separate male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecy), and producing separate male and female flowers on different plants (dioecy).

As stated earlier, the essence of pollination is getting the pollen from the anthers to the stigmas. Reproduction is an expensive process, so ensuring that this sex act takes place is vital. This is the reason why flowers are often showy, colorful, and fragrant. However, many plants rely on the wind to aid them in pollination (anemophily), and so their flowers are small, inconspicuous, and lack certain parts. They produce massive amounts of tiny, light-weight pollen grains, many of which never reach their intended destination. Grasses, rushes, sedges, and reeds are pollinated this way, as well as many trees (elms, oaks, birches, etc.) Some aquatic plants transport their pollen from anther to stigma via water (hydrophily), and their flowers are also simple, diminutive, and produce loads of pollen.

Inforescence of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a wind pollinated plant - pohto credit: wikimedia commons

Inflorescence of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a wind pollinated plant – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plants that employ animals as pollinators tend to have flowers that we find the most attractive and interesting. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and are anywhere from odorless to highly fragrant. Odors vary from sweet to bitter to foul. Many flowers offer nectar as a reward for a pollinator’s service. The nectar is produced in special glands called nectaries deep within the flowers, inviting pollinators to enter the flower where they can be dusted with pollen. The reward is often advertised using nectar guides – patterns of darker colors inside the corolla that direct pollinators towards the nectar. Some of these nectar guides are composed of pigments that reflect the sun’s ultraviolet light – they are invisible to humans but are a sight to behold for many insects.

In part two, we will learn what happens once the pollen has reached the stigma – post-pollination, in other words. But first, a little more about pollen. The term pollen actually refers to a collection of pollen grains. Here is how Michael Allaby defines “pollen grain” in his book The Dictionary of Science for Gardeners: “In seed plants, a structure produced in a microsporangium that contains one tube nucleus and two sperm nuclei, all of them haploid, enclosed by an inner wall rich in cellulose and a very tough outer wall made mainly from sporopollenin. A pollen grain is a gametophyte.”

A pollen grain’s tough outer wall is called exine, and this is what Allaby has to say about that: “It resists decay, and the overall shape of the grain and its surface markings are characteristic for a plant family, sometimes for a genus or even a species. Study of pollen grains preserved in sedimentary deposits, called palynology or pollen analysis, makes it possible to reconstruct past plant communities and, therefore, environments.”

Scanning electron microscope image of pollen grains from narrowleaf evening primrose (Oenothera fruticosa) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Scanning electron microscope image of pollen grains from narrowleaf evening primrose (Oenothera fruticosa) – photo credit: wikimedia commons