In the animal kingdom, it’s usually the male of the species that struts its stuff and tries to seduce the ladies, who will pick the most handsome, rugged and tough as her mate, checking out his looks and fitness and fighting capabilities. In the botanical world, a plant, rooted to the ground cannot wander around showing off, singing and dancing to seduce a mate. So, it employs the services of, what one could roughly say is, a marriage bureau to get itself a mate. This bureau has a host of mammals, insects and birds (and even the wind) on its rolls. And as there are no free lunches, these services have to be paid for in sweet nectar (sugar water, really), produced in glands called nectarines, and nourishing pollen.
First, the “fixer” has to be convinced that it’s worth its while to visit the plant and, so, the plant bedecks its reproductive parts in vivid colours and patterns or spreads a heavenly scent around. These reproductive parts are, of course, flowers. Instead of seducing its actual partner, the flower must seduce the “fixer” (botanists call them pollinators). Once the pollinator arrives to check it out, the plant generously bedaubs and blesses it with pollen grains (the equivalent of sperm) from the tip of its stamens, which is called the anther.
Some of these pollinators are cooperative, and have pollen carry bags on their legs, which they fill up; others are furry and get a good dusting of pollen on their bodies. They drink deep, get energised with sugar and pollen (some of which is reserved for their own larvae, if they are bees) and buzz off happily to the next plant — hopefully, as pretty and handsome as the one it just came from. Its load of pollen is applied to the stigma, the female section of the bloom as it gorges on more nectar and pollen. The big, sticky pollen grain germinates and sends down a pollen tube bearing a pair of actual sperms along a wider tube called the “style” (collectively, the female parts, the stigma, style and ovary are called the pistil). One of the sperms fertilises the egg at the bottom of the style in the ovary and the seed begins to form. The second sperm develops into the nourishing “endosperm” for the baby seed to feed and grow (seeds we eat, too — peanuts, wheat, rice).
Flowers can be both boy and girl or either. In boy-girl flowers, the stamens (together, they’re officially called the andoroceium) are usually arranged along the outer rim of the bloom and the lady parts, the pistil, called the gynoecium on the inner side. They are usually surrounded by the corolla — the colourful, soft petals — which are guarded by the leaflike calyx that hold the petals in place at the bottom of the flower’s stem. Some plants, like the sunflower, for example, have thousands of tiny flowers surrounded by the yellow petals, a phenomenon called inflorescence. In others, like the petunia and the tulip, the flowers stand proud in solitary splendour.
Usually, the pollen from one bloom is deposited on the stigma of another bloom by the pollinators, which enables genetic variety. This is called cross-pollination. Then, there are those which “self-pollinate” — the pollen of the plant fertilises the eggs of the same plant — a horrific habit! Many plants take great care that this does not happen, either the pollen and eggs get ready for “mating” at different times, or the plant annuls such accidental unions.
While many flowering plants try to look and smell their best for their pollinators, there are those bindaas type, like grass and conifers, who trust the whimsical wind to find themselves a match. Their pollen is fine as dust, easily blown around and they don’t have to cough out fancy colours and perfumes.
It’s thought that flowering plants evolved some 180 million years ago, though this could be pushed back to 250 million years according to some recent “circumstantial evidence”. There have been chemicals used for self-defence as found in these 250 million year-old ancients.
We’ve been seduced, too! Lovelorn youngsters send red roses to one another; flowers are used in religious ceremonies all over the world. They’ve even been (mis-)used as symbols by political parties! Garlands are strung around the greasy necks of politicians (pity the flowers!). We’ve interfered with their reproductive processes and now there are flowering plants that are dependent on us for propagation.
The worldwide business in cut flowers is colossal. Remember when playwright George Bernard Shaw was asked by a journalist if he liked flowers, because there were no cut flowers in his house, he apparently retorted, “Yes ma’am, I do. I like flowers, I also like children, but I do not chop their heads off and keep them in bowls of water around the house.”
(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)