Saturday, September 22, 2007

Yes, the garden is still alive

Wanted to share the first-ever blooms on my bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, an Illinois native.

This is the second year I've had this plant in the ground. The flowers are interesting because the petals never fully open, and only a bumblebee is strong enough to push its way inside to the rich nectar reward. By coevolving this mutualistic relationship, the bumblebee benefits from reduced competition for tasty nectar, and the plant benefits by increasing its chance of pollination. How does this work? If a variety of non-specialist pollinators pollinated bottle gentian, the chances of each of those individuals also visiting another bottle gentian would be lower because they visit everything, but bumblebees learn that bottle gentian nectar is theirs for the taking and will actually seek out other individuals, bringing conspecific pollen along for the ride. This species, like many others, has thus improved its survival odds by tricking an animal into doing its bidding. That is just one reason why plants are so very cool. Their ways are subtle and deceptive, and they can dish out sumptuous rewards or instant death without all the awkward emotional or moral consequences.

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