Flower Sex (KQED March 1994)

by Michael Ellis

Once on San Benitos Island off the coast of Baja I was with a group and we were watching elephant seals mate. Earlier we had seen copulating gray whales and courting ospreys. Finally one lady could take it no longer and shouted. “You biologists are nothing more than frustrated voyeurs.”

I replied, “I beg your pardon, I am not frustrated.” Ah but I readily admit to being a voyeur. Right now I am thoroughly enjoying looking at the reproductive organs on display throughout the SF Bay region. Now I am not referring to some racy billboard but to the wildflowers. Spring is the time for breeding and brightly colored flowers attract insects with an enticement of pollen and nectar, this facilitates transfer of plant sperm from one flower to another.

The first person to make the comparison between the genitalia of animals and the flowers was Herr Sprengel, a schoolteacher in Spandau, Germany who published a book in 1787 entitled “The Newly Revealed Mystery of Nature in the Structure and Fertilization of Flowers.” in which he described in detail, flower sex. The citizens were shocked and immediately dismissed him from his teaching post.

But the most poetic description of plant love comes from that uptight Swedish taxonomist, Carlos Linneaus, who described the wedding night of flowers thusly:

“The petals of the flowers themselves contribute nothing to procreation, but serve solely as the bridal bed, for the great Creator has thus splendidly arranged it, a bed equipped with such noble curtains and perfumed with so many lovely scents in order that the bridegroom may consummate his marriage there with all the greater festivity. When, then, the bed is prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his dear bride and to offer her his gifts: I mean, we see how the testicuii open and pour out pulverum genitalem which falls upon the
tubam and fructifies the ovarium.”

Don’t you love it when I talk like that? Anyway enjoy the spring flowers and I hope this gives you something else to think about when you stop to smell the roses. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.



Posted on

August 6, 2009