Dispersal by Bulbils – A Bulbous Bluegrass Story

The main way that a plant gets from place to place is in the form of a seed. As seeds, plants have the ability to travel miles from home, especially with the assistance of outside forces like wind, water, and animals. They could also simply drop to the ground at the base of their parent plant and stay there. The possibilities are endless, really.

But what about plants that don’t even bother making seeds? How do they get around? In the case of bulbous bluegrass, miniature bulbs produced in place of flowers function exactly like seeds. They are formed in the same location as seeds, reach maturity and drop from the plant just like seed-bearing fruits, and are then dispersed in the same ways that seeds are. They even experience a period of dormancy similar to seeds, in that they lie in wait for months or years until the right environmental conditions “tell” them to sprout. And so, bulbils are basically seeds, but different.

bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa)

Bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) is a Eurasian native but is widely distributed outside of its native range having been repeatedly spread around by humans both intentionally and accidentally. It’s a short-lived, perennial grass that can reach up to 2 feet tall but is often considerably shorter. Its leaves are similar to other bluegrasses – narrow, flat or slightly rolled, with boat-shaped tips and membranous ligules – yet the plants are easy to distinguish thanks to their bulbous bases and the bulbils that form in their flower heads. Their bulbous bases are actually true bulbs, and bulbous bluegrass is said to be the only grass species that has this trait. Just like other bulb-producing plants, the production of these basal bulbs is one way that bulbous bluegrass propagates itself.

basal bulbs of bulbous bluegrass

Bulbous bluegrass is also propagated by seeds and bulbils. Seeds form, like any other plant species, in the ovary of a pollinated flower. But sometimes bulbous bluegrass doesn’t make flowers, and instead modifies its flower parts to form bulbils in their place. Bulbils are essentially tiny, immature plants that, once separated from their parent plant, can form roots and grow into a full size plant. The drawback is that, unlike with most seeds, no sexual recombination has occurred, and so bulbils are essentially clones of a single parent.

The bulbils of bulbous bluegrass sit atop the glumes (bracts) of a spikelet, which would otherwise consist of multiple florets. They have dark purple bases and long, slender, grass-like tips. Bulbils are a type of pseudovivipary, in that they are little plantlets attached to a parent plant. True vivipary occurs when a seed germinates inside of a fruit while still attached to its parent.

Like seeds, bulbils are small packets of starch and fat, and so they are sought ought by small mammals and birds as a source of food. Ants and small rodents are said to collect and cache the bulbils, which is one way they get dispersed. Otherwise, the bulbils rely mostly on wind to get around. They then lie dormant for as long as 2 or 3 years, awaiting the ideal time to take root.

bulbils of bulbous bluegrass

Bulbous bluegrass was accidentally brought to North America as a contaminant in alfalfa and clover seed. It was also intentionally planted as early as 1907 and has been evaluated repeatedly by the USDA and other organizations for use as a forage crop or turfgrass. It has been used in restoration to stabilize soils and reduce erosion. Despite numerous trials, it has consistently underperformed mainly due to its short growth cycle and long dormancy period. It is one of the first grasses to green up in the spring, but by the start of summer it has often gone completely dormant, limiting its value as forage and making for a pretty pathetic turfgrass. Otherwise, it’s pretty good at propagating itself and persisting in locations where it hasn’t been invited and is now mostly considered a weed – a noxious one at that according to some states. Due to its preference for dry climates, it is found most commonly in western North America.

In its native range, bulbous bluegrass frequently reproduces sexually. In North America, however, sexual reproduction is rare, and bulbils are the most common method of reproduction. Prolific asexual reproduction suggests that bulbous bluegress populations in North America should have low genetic diversity. Researchers set out to examine this by comparing populations found in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Their results, published in Northwest Science (1997), showed a surprising amount of genetic variation within and among populations. They concluded that multiple introductions, some sexual reproduction, and the autopolyploidy nature of the species help explain this high level of diversity.


Interested in learning more about how plants get around? Check out the first issue of our new zine Dispersal Stories.

Seed Oddities: Vivipary

Seeds house and protect infant plants. When released from their parent plant, they commence a journey that, if successful, will bring them to a suitable location where they can take up residence (upon germination) and carry out a life similar to that of their parents. Their seed coats (and often – in the case of angiosperms – the fruits they were born in) help direct them and protect them in this journey. Physical and chemical factors inhibit them from germinating prematurely – a phenomenon known as dormancy. Agents of dispersal and mechanisms of dormancy allow seeds to travel through time and space — promises of new plants yet to be realized.

There is rarely a need for a seed to germinate immediately upon reaching maturity. In many cases, such as in temperate climates or in times of drought or low light, germinating too soon could be detrimental. The most vulnerable time in a plant’s life comes when it is a young seedling. Thus, finding the right time and space to get a good start is imperative.

The fruits (and accompanying seeds) of doubleclaw (Proboscidea parviflora) are well equipped for long distance dispersal. (via wikimedia commons)

In rare instances, dispersal via seeds offers little advantage; instead, dispersal of live seedlings or propagules is preferable. For this select group of plants, vivipary is part of the reproductive strategy. In vivipary, seeds lack dormancy. Rather than waiting to be dispersed before germinating, viviparous seeds germinate inside of fruits that are still attached to their parent plants.

Occasionally, seeds are observed germinating inside tomatoes, citrus, squash, and other fruits; however, these fruits are usually overripe and often detached from the plant. In these instances, what is referred to as “vivipary” is not a genetic predisposition or part of the reproductive strategy. It’s just happenstance – a fun anomaly. The type of vivipary discussed in this post is actually quite rare, occurring in only a handful of species and prevalent in a select number of environments.

There are three main types of vivipary: true vivipary, cryptovivipary, and pseudovivipary. In true vivipary, a seed germinates inside the fruit and pushes through the fruit wall before the fruit is released. In cryptovivipary, a seed germinates inside the fruit but remains inside until after the fruit drops or splits open. Pseudovivipary is the production of bulbils or plantlets in the flower head. It does not involve seeds and is, instead, a form of asexual reproduction that will be discussed in a future post.

True vivipary is commonly seen among plant communities located in shallow, marine habitats in tropical or subtropical regions, such as mangroves or seagrasses. The term mangrove is used generally to describe a community of plants found in coastal areas growing in saline or brackish water. It also refers more specifically to the small trees and shrubs found in such environments. While not all mangrove species are viviparous, many of them are.

Seedlings of viviparous mangrove species emerge from the fruit and drop from the plant into the salty water below. From there they have the potential to float long or short distances before taking root. They may land in the soil upright, but often, as the tide recedes, they find themselves lying horizontally on the soil. Luckily, they have the remarkable ability to take root and quickly stand themselves up. Doing this allows young plants to keep their “heads” above water as the tides return. It also helps protect the shoot tips from herbivory.

Viviparous seedlings emerging from the fruits of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) via wikimedia commons

Another example of vivipary is found in the epiphytic cactus (and close relative of tan hua), Epiphyllum phyllanthus. Commonly known as climbing cactus, this species was studied by researchers in Brazil who harvested fruits at various stages to observe the development of the viviparous seedlings. They then planted the seedlings on three different substrates to evaluate their survival and establishment.

Epiphyllum phyllanthus is cryptoviviparous, so the germinated seeds don’t leave the fruit until after it splits open. In a sense, the mother plant is caring for her offspring before sending them out into the world. The researchers see this as “a form of parental care with subsequent conspecific [belonging to the same species] nursing.” Since the plant is epiphytic – meaning that it grows on the surface of another plant rather than in the soil – local dispersal is important, since there is no guarantee that seeds or propagules dispersed away from the host plant will find another suitable site. That being said, the researchers believe that “vivipary involves adaptation to local dispersal,” since “the greater the dispersal distance is, the higher the risk and the lower the probability of optimal dispersion.”

Epiphyllum phyllanthus via Useful Tropical Plants

While some viviparous seedlings of mangroves can travel long distances from their parent plant and don’t always root into the ground immediately, they maintain their advantage over seeds because they can root in quickly upon reaching a suitable site and lift themselves up above rising tide waters. As the authors of the Epiphyllum study put it, vivipary is “a reproductive advantage that, in addition to allowing propagules to root and grow almost immediately, favors quick establishment whenever seedlings land on suitable substrates.”

There is still much to learn about this unusual and rare botanical feature. The research that does exist is relatively scant, so it will be interesting to see what more we can discover. For now, check out the following resources:

Also, check out this You Tube video of :