Cross Dressing Plants

Sorry humans, nature did this first too!  From zombies to sirens, from engineering to architecture, nature is always one step ahead.  Now it seems that nature was there first even for cultural phenomena in human society.

This is a story about a plant named Solanum cowiei, which has functionally female flowers that pretend to have male parts, including fake pollen!

Photos A–C by Kym Brennan. SEM images by Renata Mammone.

Figure 1, Martine et al. 2013, from the Encyclopedia of Life, Photos A–C by Kym Brennan. SEM images by Renata Mammone.

This plant has separate male and female flowers, but the female flowers have fake male parts!  The real pollen (SEM E above) has a pore or aperture where a pollen tube can grow, while the fake pollen (SEM F above) is produced in the female flower and lacks the pore.

This is the key part, apparently, that distinguishes the male flowers from the “cryptically dioecious” female flowers.  This is in fact not unique to Solanum cowiei, but is found in at least nine other species of spiny solanums.

One article I read has called this a form of floral deception (Flower’s False Pollen Lures Unwitting Bees To Do Its Bidding on PBS’s website)…the female flowers supposedly generate the fake pollen as a way to attract pollinators.  However, from my perspective, there is no deception involved.  The bees are still able to collect a proteinaceous reward.

To clarify this concern, the lead scientist on the paper above, Chris Martine, says the following: “One of the things we’re going to do next is study what that means. Do the bees actually get anything from this fake pollen? And, if they don’t, that means the plants are actually tricking the bees into doing their bidding, which would be a really neat thing for a plant to do.” source

I would be very surprised to find that the bees do not get any benefit from the fake pollen!  It must, after all, still be a protein structure, which is what they require to rear their offspring.  On the other hand, they might receive less of a reward from these cross-dressing female flowers.  That has yet to be determined.

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone, source

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone, source  (Lady Gaga is so useful for these kinds of posts)


6 thoughts on “Cross Dressing Plants

  1. Seems more like a double reward/double security system – attract bees to pollen then attract bees to ovum for more goodies. Probably simpler that existing genetic material for pollen production is used (which doesn’t come out quite the same in female plant) than a whole new treat being evolved.

  2. Pingback: Skunky smells and pollination | standingoutinmyfield

  3. Pingback: Euglossine bees carrying pollinia | standingoutinmyfield

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