Of wanton plants and prudish immune systems: late-night thoughts for National Pollinator Week

This is a post to mark the end of National Pollinator Week 2012.

You see, I am enthralled by the beauty and evolutionary significance of pollination. My body, on the other hand, wishes nowadays, like the dinosaurs may have—at least according to one hypothesis regarding their extinction proposed by Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume—that plants had never figured out this depraved manner of breeding in the first place.

For pollination encompasses, when you catalog it all, a collection of some of the most weird, wonderful, bizarre, beautiful, perverted means of sexual reproduction. The moment plants figured out how to use animals as willing or unwitting instruments in their sexual acts must count as one of those hugely significant moments in our planet’s evolutionary history when everything changed. Of course it probably wasn’t any one moment, but you know what I mean… the series of moments when a variety of plants and animals discovered the steps to a coevolutionary dance that bound them to each other in an ever more passionate tango.

My mind is enthralled by the sheer beauty of pollination, as you can witness in this video from a TED talk:

Pollination makes me physically ill. Don’t get me wrong: my mind is liberated enough to embrace, even revel in, the wide variety sexual perversions flagrantly put on display by the flowering plants every spring, as they shamelessly display their brightly colored genitalia to entice hungrily unsuspecting insects and birds and bats and other beasts. My body, though, seems to have turned quite prudish lately, rather like the dinosaurs in Jitterbug Perfume:

“Ninety million years ago, give or take twenty million, there occurred two events that should be of interest to all perfumers. It was then, toward the end of the Cretaceous Period, that the flowers wiped out the dinosaurs. Science knows that the disappearance of the dinosaurs and the appearance of flowers occurred simultaneously, yet, strangely, it has never drawn much of a connection between the two events. It is up to perfumers to correct the oversight.

“Vegetarian dinosaurs dined on ferns, floating water plants, and the palmlike cycad. They were not very intelligent, and certainly not very French, having developed a limited, strictly specialized diet. When the great mountain building took place during the Cretaceous Period, seaways drained and swamps dried up. First the aquatic plants, then the ferns and cycads succumbed. Insufficient surface water. Some new plants had been gradually moving in, however. These plants were inconspicuous at first, and neither the dinosaurs nor the swamp plants paid them much attention. Ah, but they had plans for the future. They began to grow their roots longer and longer, sink them deeper and deeper, until they could reach the moisture trapped beneath the surface, and when their stringy little exploratory organs hit the water table -POW! They exploded in a scandalous display of sexual invitation.

“The old claw-and-fang world of drab, predatory, reptilian repression had never seen anything like this. Lasciviously colored, scandalously scented blossom after blossom flaunted its genitalia openly, enticing with visual and heretofore unknown olfactory charms any who might be inclined to sample its pleasures.

“With their appalling genius for adaptability, insects responded enthusiastically to the outbreak of sensuality. So did the smaller birds. Dinosaurs, however, were repulsed. Although their reproductive equipment must have been monumental -the penis of a Brontosaurus would have been only a couple of yards shorter than the thirty-foot organ of the great blue whale- it was kept out of sight and infrequently used. The dim-witted, thin-blooded dinosaur was not a hot lover, another way in which it differed from the French. It mated once a year, barring headaches. So put off was the prudish dinosaur by the sexy smell of flowering plants that it starved to death and went extinct rather than eat them.”

For me, the trouble started soon after I moved into the Central Valley of California. For almost four decades, I had gone along happily sticking my nose into flowers, watching closely the insects and the birds participating enthusiastically in the plants’ mating rituals, inhaling deeply of the scented springs with nary a care in the world. No more, said my immune system soon after arriving in Fresno, as it started putting on ever more elaborate and full blown security theater displays every spring when the flowers open: and I mean the full works, ranging from swollen sinuses to watery nose to headaches to wheezing lungs to itchy red and eventually almost-swollen-shut eyes. Not sure what set my damn internal security apparatus off like that, but all of a sudden, I am reduced to being almost an indoor recluse, afraid of riding my bike to campus for fear of spending the next three days wheezing and sneezing and bleary-eyed! Was it that my body had somehow imbibed the conservative family values of the valley’s dominant culture, and started frowning upon the blatant sexual displays of the flowers? Would it want to move to Florida next, where they had recently outlawed pollination (well, sexual acts involving animals, which would include pollination) itself? My mind had remained in coastal California, it would seem, while my body was being steeped in valley culture! At least it is a curious coincidence that my allergies started only after moving here…

But I can’t really blame the flowers for my allergies, can I? At least not the ones that involve animals in their sex acts, because surely they are less likely to let their pollen simply drift about in the air and get into my nostrils and eyes and lungs triggering the massively over-reacting intruder alerts from my immune system. Its the wind-pollinated plants that are more likely to blame, don’t you think? Unless its the molecules making up the floral perfumes that cause my allergies?

Nah… it may well be my own species that has transformed ecosystems so much as to upset our own immune equilibrium: by moving and growing allergenic plants around the planet, by isolating us in a hygienic bubble as we grow up alienated from plant life in our cities, and (most importantly) by spewing into the very air we breathe a wide variety of novel synthetic molecules with which our immune systems have had no experience. And so they panic, and set off all kinds of alarms, inflicting more harm on our own bodies from within even as we continue to inflict damage on the planet without. In our pursuit of better living through (synthetic) chemistry in our modern agriculture, we have let loose quite the witch’s brew of chemicals that are now killing off pollinators that even our own crops depend upon. Not to mention making us sick. And the Central Valley leads the nation in poor air quality, especially when it comes to particulate matter in the air, so who knows what synthetic molecules might be causing these allergies. Even as bees disappear from our industrial farmlands, and some of us try to offer them refuge in our little urban gardens. Can we save the beauty of pollination for our own sakes?

So I sit here as another National Pollinator Week comes to an end, unable to sleep because my head feels like a swollen pumpkin and the medication messes with my sleep cycles, contemplating the meaning of it all, this endless sexual dance unleashed upon us by these wanton flowering plants. It is quite beautiful, even if one is reduced to watching it more on video than out in the wild… so I hope the insects (and indeed our immune systems) can bring the full power of their “appalling genius for adaptability” to respond to the modern challenges of our technologies, and that we can figure out better ways to avoid disrupting their dance with the flowers.

I hope you had a happy week filled with all the joys brought to you by your friendly neighborhood pollinators!

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About aranyak

I am an associate professor of vertebrate ecology at California State University, Fresno.
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2 Responses to Of wanton plants and prudish immune systems: late-night thoughts for National Pollinator Week

  1. Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (June 29th, 2012) | Prutic Networks

  2. Pingback: The Scienceblogging Weekly (June 29th, 2012) | Stock Market News - Business & Tech News

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