Illustration of Plant sexuality

1694 Plant sexuality

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Rudolf Jakob Camerarius botany Illustration of Plant sexuality

Plant sexuality

Rudolf Jakob Camerarius determined experimentally plants reproduce sexually. He removed their pistils and stamens; he separated male from female; he found that each was needed for the plants to set viable seed. Having identified the parts new plants could be hybridized— conceived by man’s art instead of nature’s chance.

Male and female

Some flowers have both male and female parts; some have only male or only female parts. Some plants have a mix of male and female flowers; some have a mix where some flowers are only male, some are only female, and some are both male and female.

Messy sex

In front of our house two Chinese Pistache— a large male and a small female— perform their annual ballet. In the spring the male develops immense pollen fronds that carpet our driveway cover our cars stick to the soles of our shoes and track into our home. In the summer the female bears bushes of small red nuts too small for even the squirrels that hang on after the leaves until the winter winds knock them underfoot where they crackle as we step on them.

A priori

Simply because it’s so prevalent, we know that sex confers an evolutionary advantage. Similarly, it’s easy for us to see red berries among green leaves, and fats and sweets taste good, and bleeding hurts, and falling in love is normal, although we must observe that having an evolutionary advantage doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Rudolf Jakob Camerarius surgically removed the parts of caster oil plants, maize, spinach, and dog’s mercury, and he physically isolated male from female plants to establish his hypothesis that plants reproduce, like animals, sexually. Within twenty-five years, Thomas Fairchild was selectively breeding flowers. By 1865, Gregor Mendel had carefully cross-pollinated thousands of garden peas to demonstrate the laws of heredity, the basis today of genetics.

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