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Plant has sex with itself, study finds

June 21, 2006
Courtesy Nature
and World Science staff

Many plants can fertilize themselves, but biologists in China say they’ve found one that takes things a step further. 

The orchid Holcoglossum amesianum, which tends to bloom in windless drought conditions, defies gravity to twist the male part of its flower into the female one for fertilization, the researchers say.

The orchid H. amesianum. (Courtesy LaiQiang Huang)

Flowers contain structures required for sexual reproduction. The male part, called the stamen, is capped by the anther, which bears pollen. The female part, called the pistil, includes the stigma, a sticky surface that catches pollen.

Self-pollinating plants often use sticky fluids or other methods to ensure the pollen reaches the egg. But fertilization in H. amesianum takes place without this help, the scientists found.

They studied more than 1,900 flowers of the species, which grows on tree trunks in China’s Yunnan province and flowers during the dry, windless months of February to April. 

The flowers produce no scent or nectar. The researchers said they found no cases of pollination by an insect or wind, common among other flowers. 

Instead, the anther uncovers itself and rotates into a suitable position to insert into the stigma cavity, where fertilization takes place, they reported. Such is the exclusivity of the sexual relationship, they added, that flowers do not even transfer pollen to other flowers on the same plant.

The study, by LaiQiang Huang of Tsinghua University Graduate School in Shenzhen, China, and colleagues, appears in the June 22 issue of the research journal Nature.

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