By Jeffrey Barbieri, Partnership Staff
On a frigid and blustery February day, right before Valentine’s Day—I stood basking inside the balmy Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park. The tropical paradise I had entered was replete with palm trees and flowering plants and spotted with painted wooden hearts to signifying the holiday. I was able to join a tour given by Education Coordinator Lesley Lambert. The tour was about how plants flirt, perfect for this season. The Flirty Plant Tour focuses on the evolution of how plants spread their pollen in order to reproduce, or how they “flirt.” With more than 400,000 plant species identified today, certainly several adaptations have evolved. According to science, this evolution has taken on three distinct methods of “flirting,” although she clarifies, there are always exceptions to the rule! Pollen is plant DNA; to reproduce DNA from two different organisms, DNA must combine then create a seed. The seed then sprouts and grows into a new plant.
Pollination is the movement of these pollen grains from the male reproductive part of a plant to the female reproductive part. It is a prerequisite to fertilization.
Evolutionarily speaking, it all started with algae, mosses, and ferns, which mostly live in or near the water. Thus, their pollination relies on water, what Lesley refers to as “sending messages in a bottle.” As plants began to develop vascular systems, grow taller and move away from the water, they began to require other ways of “spreading their seed.”
For trees, this means “tossing a love letter to the wind.” This is effective, especially for taller trees (such as pines, spruces, firs, and aspens) at the top of the forest canopy. Tossing their pollen and subsequently their seeds to the wind is a romantic and great way for seed dispersal relying heavily on chance.
Today, most plants (in fact more than 350,000 of the 400,000 cataloged species) are not willing to rely on chance alone to find “love,” so they employ the “FedEx delivery service” of the plant world—pollinators. Any plant that relies on pollinators has some kind of flower, which advertises that something inside the flower needs to be pollinated. Flowers are a very pointed adaptation of plants to attract pollinators. Flowers of different color, size, smell, and shape attract different pollinators. Lesley notes that the magnolia is believed to be one of the first flowering plants. It has thick, rubbery petals, presumably because its pollinator is a beetle—a bigger, clumsier insect that requires a sturdy landing pad. The magnolia flower has been observed to close its petals, surrounding the beetle in order to assure the beetle gets covered with pollen before the magnolia releases its amorous friend to move on to another flower.
The evolution to flowers and the production of seeds also produced another important relationship between plants and animals. Humans noticed flowers and became attracted to their beauty. As a result, flowers have served to connect the plant world with the human world. Conscientious plant-lovers work to preserve and protect wild pollinators like the bee and pollination by human hand has become common. Plants rely on pollinators and have adapted to offer a reward to the insects that visit. Bees, birds, beetles, bats and flies all feed on the nectar produced inside flowers. Humans have also enjoyed the many flavors of plants in our own diet as do the animals we eat and keep as pets. In fact, humans are so dependent on plants that we have actually employed hand-pollination techniques, genetic modification of plant species, and even robot bees to help get the pollination job done fast enough to meet our needs.
Today, nearly ¾ of all plants produce flowers. Perhaps the idea of Valentine’s Day is one that humans have adapted from the romantic suggestions made by plants. It’s clear that plants use flowers to “send love messages” to each other and we ,too, love using flowers to send our own messages of affection. Fall River Florist sold more than 700,000 roses just in the two weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day in 2015!
If you’re interested in taking a tour of the Botanical Center contact Lesley at (401) 680-7250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.