According to the Kama Sutra, oriental book of instruction, there are some seventy ways of making love. It has been claimed that only the camel knows the last one, which is why he looks so superior.
Much later, in his celebrated Let’s Make Love in 1928, Cole Porter warbled, “And that’s why birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it . . .” So when it comes to moving pollen from male stamen to female pistil, the ways could, and indeed do, vary.
Of course, Cole failed to mention among many other animals, bats and gnats, flies and wasps, skinks and geckos, lemurs and honey possums . . .amongst others, although perhaps not fleas. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Bees and their wasp hemipteran relatives certainly do it and some orchids take advantage of their sexual proclivities. Bee Orchids (Ophrys) from southern and central Europe fool male insects into believing they are fecund females. They imitate not only the colour but also the hairiness and even their odour. The deluded male attempts to copulate, picks up pollinium—a large group of pollen grains—and buzzes off to the next pseudo-bee bloom. Even more bizarre are Bucket Orchids (Coryanthes), 15 species from Central and South America. Bees lap up liquid on the orchid’s lips, become inebriated and fall into a ‘bucket’ of liquid. The only escape route is under the flower’s sexual organs. Once free the bee heads for the next Coryanthes bloom to booze again, incidentally effecting pollination.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet observes in Shakespeare’s famous play. Carrion flowers are often known by other names but they all stink to high hell. Worse, many not only smell of rotten meat they look like it too. There is method in their odiferous madness, however: this attracts the flies and beets to pollinate them. Both the plants with the world’s largest inflorescence—an enormous collection of tiny flowers—and the largest flowers—display these characteristics. Amorphallus titanum, the Titan Arum or Corpse Flower has15-foot leaves on 10-foot leaf stalks (petioles) with an equally impressive spadix up to 8-feet tall. Across the water from its Indonesian home, Rafflesia arnoldii, Stinking Corpse Lily, parasites jungle vines or lianas in Malaysia. Its flowers are 3-feer or more in diameter. Following successful pollination by flies, the seeds are dispersed by ants.
The flowers of Stapelia, succulents from South Africa, likewise emit a nauseating stench. In their own way, they are also attractive which attracts not just pollinators but also acquisitive human collectors, regardless of the odour. Particularly noted are S. asterias the Starfish Flower and S. variegata the Star Flower.
Climbing Ceropegia species display similarly malodorous blossoms. One, C. haygarthii, even waves a hairy club as an attractant. Investigating flies fall down a chute into the flower proper and are held there until pollination is completed, then tips to release their captives.
Other so-called ‘carrion flowers’ employ even more specialized methods to ensure pollination. The Stink Lily or Dragon Arum, Dracunculus vulgaris from the Mediterranean region, is sometimes sold as an interesting, if smelly garden or indoor ornament. Also grown as an ornamental is the related Helicodiceros muscivorus Dead-Horse Arum Lily from Sardinia and Corsica. The popular name, however, reveals everything. Small flies attracted by the scent squeeze past hairs at the base of the bloom but are then trapped for several hours before these wilt, releasing them to pollinate others close by.
A similar method is resorted to by Lords-and-Ladies (Arum maculatum), less attractively known as Cuckoo Pint. Midges crawl on to the female flowers at the base of the tunnel (the males are above). The hairs allow the midges to enter, but not to leave until the pollen is shed on them
If not carrion, North America’s skunk cabbages like up to their common name. Eastern Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus attracts early emerging flies, stoneflies, bees to its swampy home. Western Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanum, has similar attributes but is also said to be a laxative for bears emerging from hibernation.
So, what about the bird portion of the equation? Over 2,000 species of birds have been recorded as encouraging pollination, technically known as ornithophily. They range from the New World hummingbirds to Old World sunbirds, Hawaiian honeycreepers, Australian honeyeaters and the brush-tongued parrots of New Guinea. One of the most spectacular—and familiar—plants so aided is the magnificent South African Bird-of-Paradise Flower (Strelitzia reginae). The strong platforms provide a perch for visiting birds to sip nectar while their feet are coated with pollen.
Not as many but a still an impressive 500-plus species of flowers rely on bats as their major or exclusive pollinators, scientifically chiropterophily. Tequila imbibers can thank bats for their beverage of choice—bats pollinate the agave plants from which tequila is obtained. The iconic saguaro cactus of the southwest United States likewise relies on bats as, elsewhere, do mango, eucalyptus, wild bananas and guava. In an extraordinary development, the Cuban vine Marcgarvia evenia, attracts bats by its dish-shaped leaves that act as sonar reflectors for the flying mammals.
If that is not strange enough, Madagascar’s black and white ruffed lemurs are the principal pollinators of the traveller’s palm, Ravenala madagascariensis. Their strong hands are equal to the task of tearing the tough blossoms apart. Incidentally, it is not a palm but related to bananas; its fan tends to grow in an east-west line forming a rough-and-ready compass. In Australia, a similar function is performed on banksia and eucalyptus by the native honey possums. Even lizards enter the act: New Zealand harbours a gecko that pollinates the native flax flowers while a Brazilian skink helps propagate the mulungu trees there.
It would be pleasant to include slugs and snails if only to say something nice about the slimy mollusks. Flowers pollinated so are known as malacophious or omithophilous. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a myth that they pollinate Aspidistra blossoms. They do, however, apparently pollinate aground-scrambling vine.
Ex Africa semper alquid novi (always something new out of Africa) exclaimed the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. He might have been speaking of Ceropegia sandersonii, a tropical vine to 4-metres sometimes raised as an indoor plant. A new discovery takes plants’ deception of their pollinators to a whole new level. Researchers reporting in Current Biology found that the Giant Ceropegia fools certain freeloading flies into pollinating by mimicking the scent of honeybees under attack. The flies find the smell attractive because they typically dine on the drippings of honeybees that are in the clutches of a spider or other predatory insect.
Pliny would surely have been impressed.
Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.
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