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Week 1: Botany Basics

My first Master Gardener class offered by Oregon State University’s Extension Service covered ecosystems, pollinators and flower anatomy.

But really, I learned about sex.

Stapelia flower (Photo by Flickr:scott.zona)

Stapelia flower (Photo by Flickr:scott.zona)

Linda McMahan, a horticulturist with the OSU Extension Service, projected a photograph onto a screen of a fantastic, brightly colored Namibian flower. It’s called a stapelia, with five yellow-colored triangles stretching outward in the shape of a starfish encircling a bright pink center.

The photos were from a horticultural favorite, the website Botany Photo of the Day.

“Do you have any idea what this flower is doing? Is it trying to attract a certain pollinator?” McMahan asked. “The structure doesn’t look anything like the flowers you will tear apart a little later this morning because it is so fantastic.”

McMahan asked how a pollinator would perceive the leaves of this starfish-shaped plant.

“Flesh,” a trainee in the audience suggested.

“Actually they do look like flesh to a pollinator,” McMahan said. “This is a fly-pollinated plant and so the flower is designed to attract a certain kind of pollinator. It’s beautiful as well. It’s a carrion beetle or a dung fly that will pollinate this plant. That interaction between the different parts of the animal and plant kingdom is a fascinating subject, something I’ve always really loved.”

McMahan showed another image of a butterfly pollinating a stunning white and yellow lily. Is the butterfly innocently drinking the nectar? Likely not. The butterfly brings pollen from another flower. It bumps into the end of the pistil and stigma, and boom, sex.

“Notice the structure and notice that the sexual parts of the flower are sort of way out there,” McMahan said. “They are there out in the open because that is where pollination is going to occur if a plant is pollinated by a butterfly.”

We split into small groups and were given two types of yellow chrysanthemums, a small red knife and a magnifying lens. I rubbed the glossy, slick yellow petals between my fingers. I carefully made an incision, trying in vain to identify each sexual organ. There were thousands of little flowers! Where was the stamen, or the pollen-producing male reproductive organ, with its anther and filament? What about the stigma, the female parts that receive pollen during fertilization?

The answer lay in the details. The Asteraceae family is made up of composites. The family includes the daisy and the sunflower as well as the mum. Those thousands of tiny flowers that cluster inside the petals each have individual microscopic sexual organs. It would seem size doesn’t matter to mums.

Next time I check out the Botany Photo of the Day website, I’ll know those botanists are really looking at flower porn.

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