Tag Archives: pollination

Theobroma cacao flower

Here are some close-ups of Theobroma cacao flowers at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. The plant is economically important (because chocolate) so people fuss over pollination a lot, but its bizarre floral anatomy is noteworthy regardless of the species’ value. First, here’s a photograph of a stem bearing a developing fruit and a flower:

Longwood Gardens’ meadow, Kennett Square, PA.

The catchiest structures are the pointy red staminodes, stamens that became neutered over evolutionary time, which probably have roles in visual attraction of pollinators (ceratopogonid midges) and in preventing self pollination. The real stamens are enclosed in translucent petal pouches.

According to one scenario I read, the flies first land on the exterior of the pouch, then crawl inside to lap up nectar from minute glands on the adaxial surface near the anthers. During their foraging they get coated with pollen, and some of the pollen gets deposited on the style (small white structure encircled by the staminodes) when they exit the pouch. Here’s a close-up that shows the translucent pouches:

Theobroma cacao anther sacs

Presumably some of transferred pollen is from previous visits at different trees (because most types are self-incompatible). These flies do such a terrible job pollinating that farmers often just do it themselves with paintbrushes and forceps. There’s even speculation that the domestication of T. cacao some 1500 years ago slowly changed the plant enough that the original pollinator(s) (bees?) were lost, with the midges being the only insects still interested in the meager nectar rewards.

The photograph below the “parallel staminodes” variant of the flower.

Theobroma cacao (chocolate tree) flower with parallel staminodes. Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA.

Skunk cabbages in snow

Photograph of Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) covered with snow.  I didn’t confirm with a thermometer, but these are famous for heating themselves up, maintaining 35 °C (95 °F) internal temperature even when outside air is below freezing.  Heat helps volatilize the awful smell, which can be attractive to flies and beetles, but also creates a hot “room” inside the curved leaf (spathe) that surrounds the inflorescence on the spadix (hidden from view at this angle).  But a more likely hypothesis of why this ability evolved is that thermoregulation protects pollen tube growth and female reproductive structures from frost damage. Either way, one of my favorite plants. Growing in the Crum Woods, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Eastern skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) in snow. They actually heat up to provide warm environments for flies, their primary pollinators. Crum Woods, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania.