Sex Talk at the US Botanic Garden

I returned last week to the U.S. Botanic Garden for another lesson in plant morphology, but this one was a bit sexier than the foliage talk I posted about here. This time, Dr. Susan Pell talked flowers and her audience quickly caught on that this talk would be R-rated.

Early one a listener asked, “So is pollen filled with sperm?” Indeed! So we prepared for more sex talk as we followed Susan deeper into the bowels of the garden and were next told that fruits are “just developed ovaries.”

But were we ready to digest the fact that some plants have “bisexual flowers?”

And we hadn’t even gotten to the orchids yet. Did you know that they practice “pseudocopulation,” also known as “sexual deception!” You can’t make this stuff up.

Above, Vanda coerulea is such a looker, I’m sure it has no problem deceiving those pollinators.

Here Susan talks about a pink inflorescence from Calliandra emarginata, Pink Powder Puff.

This strange-looking plant is called Cabbage on a Stick or Brighamia insignis. Native to Kaui, it’s now extinct in the wild due to total extinction of the one moth capable of pollinating it, but is being preserved through hand-pollination by the U.S. Botanic Garden and the 53 other botanic gardens that grow it. The gardens collaborate to keep the plant among the living by exchanging pollen with each other.



Another plant that needs human intervention in order to reproduce (through the efforts of the USBG’s arborist) is this Cacoa or Cocoa Tree.  Very popular with visiting school groups.

Plant sex is fun, but the highlight of the event for me was actually learning to use a tiny hand-held jewelry microscope to see flowers up-close. Here’s one participant doing it the right way – putting the microscope close to her eyes first, then bringing the plant closer and closer until the image is clear. We had to return our microscopes at the end of the tour but Susan encouraged us to buy one and keep it handy to learn more about the plants we grow or see anywhere.  They’re available online for under $3 – stocking stuffer, anyone?

(The tiny flower being examined here is from Nepenthes ‘Mixta Superba.’)

Posted by

Susan Harris
on November 18, 2016 at 8:05 am, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling.

Comment List

  • admin 06 / 05 / 2016

    Unfortunately, corn (94 million U.S. acres or 147,000 square miles- the U.S. land mass is 3.8 million square miles) is wind pollinated and soybean (83 million U.S. acres) is self-pollinated.

  • R 24 / 08 / 2016

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  • admin 27 / 08 / 2016

    Susan, great article on sex in the garden. Then I read the first comment about do we really need insect pollination because of scientists efforts with crop production?!!. Wow, I was very surprised! How about all the millions of plants that populate the planet that scientists aren’t going to pay any attention to with genetic modifications? The biodiversity of the planet depends on many species, not just the crops that sustain humans.

  • admin 07 / 11 / 2016

    FYI, if you’re feeling sciencey this weekend, then today only, Sunday, – Lab Girl ebook is only $4.99 at Amazon and B&N.

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