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Episode 7: Fireweed

Ilana teaches Elizabeth and Hannah about fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), a flower native to multiple countries in the Northern hemisphere. We talk about its many names, ecology and and its temporal sex changes. Join us on our first dive into the wonderful world of plants!


Ilana (I): Hi everyone, and welcome to today's episode of Queerly Natural, where we talk

about queerness in the natural world. We discuss different traits and qualities of animals, plants, fungi, and more, and how they relate to queer identities in humans. Some may argue our identities are not natural, and we are here to say, they queerly are. We're your hosts! I'm Ilana, 

Sage (S): I'm Hannah,

Elizabeth (E): and I'm Elizabeth!

S: I want to start by thanking all of our listeners for their continued support, including all of those who have promoted us on social media and Patreon. A special shoutout goes to our Legacy Tree Patron, Nate. Thanks Nate! Before starting the episode, we would also like to bring attention to the current events affecting our trans and gender non-conforming siblings in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott has inhumanely ordered licensed professionals to report trans youth and parents who permit gender-affirming medical care for their trans children to the state, calling such care “child abuse”. The decision to undergo gender-affirming treatment should be made between a trans individual and their doctor, and all of our trans siblings deserve to express themselves and enjoy this life authentically. Our love goes out to our trans friends, and links to donate to legal and advocacy groups working to help trans youth in Texas will be posted in the description of this episode. Now for today's species: fireweed! Ilana does an excellent job introducing this beautiful purple flowering plant that can be found in disturbed habitats around the world, and explaining exactly how it, like so many of us, also lives outside of conventional ideas of binary gender.


[Music] 


I: Welcome to this week's episode of Queerly Natural. This week we are discussing the plant Epilobium angustifolium, or Cham— Chemaer—

E: Just go for it, just go for it.

I: Chamaenerion angustifolium. There's two names.

E: Yeah, Latin's hard.

I: It's fine, we're gonna go with it. I can't pronounce things that are normally in English. It's fine. So there's two different names that I just gave you. They have the same second part of the species name — the specific epithet, is what it's called — but they have different genera names. So one is technically, I think, the more accepted one, which is the first one I read, but the second one's still commonly used in literature today, the reason being the first one is actually the first published one. The second one is not.

S: Ah. 

I: And it's hard to figure out exactly why both are still in use, but they are!

E: Fun, fun, fun. 

S: What? Okay.

I: Typically in science the first published name is the one that we go with, unless there is a reason for it to change, so probably someone thought it belonged in a different genus. I don't know. Both are still in use. 

E: Mini rant: plants change genus so fast. I'm very glad I'm not a taxonomist. That lifestyle does not appeal to me because you spend all of your time working out which key characteristics make it fit in which group, and they change it a lot. So like, the one time that I worked in an herbarium, like, all of the species names I knew they were like, “no, we're two iterations back from that for genus name so like, you gotta go look in this totally different section,” and it was

just a hassle. 

I: Oh yeah. It's fun.

S: All the ones in your books are wrong now.

E: Yeah.

S: Well, new technology like DNA sequencing has opened up a lot of things for taxonomy, so…

E: True. 

I: If you want easier taxonomy, study dung flies. There's like, one guy who studied them, and then they forced him out of retirement to write a second book about it, and he was just grumpy, but no one was taking it over so I don't think it's changed too much, except I remember one species changing.

E: That's not bad! 

S: Fewer people's input keeps things simple. Sometimes it's just people arguing that just like, complicates things. 

E: That's a big part of science.

S: Especially since things like “what is a species?” are so like, subjective.

I: Yeah. Defining species, combining morphological traits versus genetic stuff, just throws everything out of whack sometimes.

E: For folks who are in the non-science field, the thing about science — especially biology, at least in my experience — is the more that you learn, the less that you realize you know, so

like, if you'd asked me the question “what is a species?” in like, middle school or high school I would have been able to like, snap something out, and now if you ask me, “what is a species?” I'd be like, “Ooh. Okay, sit down, let me get the PowerPoint, I gotta go get some guides, like, let's talk about it.”

S: This is a whole philosophical thing.

I: Shoulder shrug. It's fine. Anyway, let's go back to our plant for a little bit. Chamaenerion, which is the first genus name I mentioned, was actually named in 1771. It was actually named by Linnaeus.

S: Nice. Well I mean, Linnaeus was not nice.

I: Linnaeus, for those who are not aware, is the founder of our naming system, so binomial nomenclature: that's how we name species, you know, with the genus name and the species name.

S: He did a lot but wasn't good. 

I: Linnaeus had some issues — especially if you're a mycologist, you're just not a big fan of him, but most other people love him. I don't know too much about his personal life. But anyway, he's the one who named it that species. Epilobium angustifolium was named in 1753. So I'm wondering if the reason the other one's still in rotation is because it was named by Linnaeus.

E: Ah.

S: Oh and it's like, the original name and people are still like, attached to it even though the more recent one’s probably more correct? 

E: Ohh.

I: But it's not. It’s the second name. It's the second name.

S: So the second name is Epilobium?

I: Yeah, the second name is supposedly Epilobium, which was named by Linnaeus, just himself. The first one's “Linnaeus and Scop.” so, I don't know, it's confusing. Anyway, both of these names are from the 1700s. One’s 1753 and one’s 1771. So when you put down the author of a name, the author of that genus is recognized, and the author of the specific epithet — so the single species — is also recognized. So it's Linnaeus, Scop. 

E: Ohh. 

S: Ah. Oh. Okay. Damn. Taxonomy, y'all. “What's the name of this?” “One of those two.”

E: Come on guys, you had 250 years to pick a name. Why are we still using both?

I: That's some deep systematics and taxonomy for you guys. Anyway, for most of this episode, I'll be referring to it by one of its common names, which is “fireweed”. Make things much simpler. So, this plant is in the Onagraceae family, which is known as the willow herb family, or the evening primrose family, which consists of 18 Genera and 655 species. This family is known for having flower parts in series of four — so four petals, four sepals, and so on and so forth —

and inferior ovaries, meaning that the ovary is located below the flower, below the petals and the sepals.

S: Nice.

E: I love how the positioning above or below are directly correlated with words like “superior” or “inferior”. Ah, biology.

I: Yes. 

S: Yeah, right, the little things that you see when you think about them.

I: It's sensitive about this. Let's not focus too much on it.

E: All right, I'm sorry, fireweed.

S: I love your ovaries, fireweed. They're not inferior to me. I love them.

E: Agreed.

I: Okay, so, I told you the common name is fireweed. That's actually the U.S. common name. This plant is found in many places around the world and therefore, of course, has many different common names. Some of the other common names include French willow, great willowherb, rosebay willow, willowherb, blooming Sally, and many more.

S: Blooming Sally!

I: I think a lot of the “willowherb” tends to come from the U.K. 

S: That makes me happy.

E: Blooming— as far as I know, blooming is a very like, mild curse word in Britain, so it just sounds like somebody was mad at their wife that day, like, “blooming Sally!”

I:  I mean I don't know— I'm not sure if that one's a U.K. name or not, but sure. 

E: In my head it is.

S: I also like when non-human things have very specifically human names.

I: So I will call it fireweed for the purposes of this. So we are of course talking about a plant this time, which is our first plant episode. Yay!

S: Even though two of us are botanists.

I: Yeah.

S: Two-and-a-half of us, Elizabeth?

E: Well, yeah! I've got botany training. If I was gonna pick a specific trade it would probably

be botany. 

S: Wow, okay, so almost three botanists.

I: Plants are awesome, and rule, and deserve so much more love and affection and attention than they get.

E: Yes.

S: They are the base of the ecosystem! The animals wouldn't be there without the plants. So anybody who cares about animals, thank plants.

I: That's how I ended up falling in love with plants.

E: Pretty much same.

I: So, why don't you guys open up your emails, and take a look at this pretty plant, and try and describe it. I've sent you a handful of pictures this time.

E: Um, Ilana told us it comes in sets of four so I'm like, “aha, I already know how many

petals it has.” 

S: Oh my gosh. This is so beautiful.

E: It is.

S: It's very hard to take a useful picture of a plant. These pictures are pretty decent, but I'm still like, kind of struggling to notice some things. 

E: Yeah, I don't really know anything about its root system from these.

I: Yeah, I tried to get some that were pretty good. I did not grab a herbarium picture.

E: You did good! I can see the stem, and some of the leaves, so it's a pretty good job.

S: No, no, this is pretty solid, but I'm just acknowledging— this is targeted at like, my family, who send me very blurry pictures of things and they're like, “what is this?” and it's like— [laughing]

E: I'm glad it's not just me!

S: —a single leaf from a tree in their hand and it's like, I need the bark, I need the bud, I need the leaf arrangement on the branch, I need so many other things that are not in this picture, so I'm very sorry that I look like I don't know what I'm talking about.

I: I do love the ornithologists who get sent pictures of birds flying and you're like, “that is a black dot, I cannot tell you what species that is,” but people expect it anyway.

E: Yep.

I: Yeah. I did try and get you a good amount of traits.

E: You did good!

S: We appreciate it. So like, the first thing I noticed is you said this is part of the primrose family, and just something that gives me like, primrose vibes about it— so much of botany is just

like, “it is this because it is like that,” like, it's just like a feeling you get, you know?

E: Yeah.

S: And like, the white midvein down the leaf gives me primrose vibes.

E: Mm hmm. Really distinctive.

S: Yeah. As well as just kind of like, the leaf shape. It's very lanceolate, meaning it's kind of long and pointed.

I: Good vocab word.

S: Thank you. And like I said, it has that very stark white midvein down the center. 

E: All right, I'm gonna go a little bit more basic and point out the first thing I noticed is the flowers are in a long row of blossoms. It's not just one flower at the end of the branch: they grow all together in kind of a clump.

S: Yeah. Like, I think the whole thing is called an inflorescence — like the whole reproductive organ — but it has a lot of individual flowers coming off of it. And the whole plant, like, growth form is also important.

E: Right.

S: The whole plant is kind of one stalk that ends in those flowers. It's not really like, a bushy plant or…

E: Right, there's no multiple trunks or stems. 

S: Yeah, there's not like, a lot of stems with leaves. It's like, one shoot up out of the ground and it's got leaves on the bottom and then flowers on the top.

E: It's got opposite leaves.

S: Really? I couldn't quite tell from the pictures.

E: Well, okay, I'm not doing the best job, but I'm looking at the first one, and they look—

S: Ooh.

E: —like they're opposing each other pretty well.

S: Oh, yeah!

E: I could be completely wrong, but from the evidence— [laughing] 

S: Yeah.

E: —I'm going with probably opposite leaved.

S: It’s not super easy to tell from these pictures but they do look like they're opposite. And opposite leaf arrangement means the leaves are kind of like, coming out in opposite directions from the same point on the stem, whereas alternate leaves would be one on one side, and then

there would be like, a break, and then above that there would be a leaf on the other side. So they'd be staggered.

E: So imagine arms on a person for opposite branched, right? Your arms come out at the same spot on your body. if you were alternate branched for arms, you would have one arm on your shoulder and the other on your rib cage.

S: Weird analogy, but effective. Thank you, Elizabeth.

E: Okay, thank you. I was proud of it.

I: I love it, and I'm gonna describe humans as opposite branched from now on.

E: Oh my gosh, Hannah, did we mention the flowers are purple? I feel like that is a key piece.

S: I was just thinking about that. Color. So…

E: Ranging from like, pale violet to… maroon, almost? Pinkish. Magenta. That's the word. Not maroon.

S: Yeah! Magenta. Yeah, that's a good color. However, the flowers, they— I don't want to presume anything, but it appears that there are two different types of flowers. The flowers lower on the stalk look like they have like, large petals. They're the color that Elizabeth was talking about — magenta to violet — but the upper part of the stalk — the very top of it — looks like a different type of flower, which I think might be a male flower. But like I said, I don't want to

assume anything about later content of the episode.

E: I have to admit, I assumed those were buds that just hadn't bloomed yet. 

S: Oh! Maybe that's true. But if it's what I'm talking about, like on some of them, the lower flowers are purple and the upper part is… white? I can't tell if those white ones are just a different plant. Ah, this is so hard for pictures.

E: Yeah, that one photo I was like, “is that a field with multiple flowers?”

I: Oh, that one photo's a mix. It's just really pretty and I wanted to show you guys how pretty it looks in groups.

S: Oh, okay.

E: It's gorgeous. 

S: No, it is beautiful and I appreciate you concluding that. Ignore the thing about white flowers, then. There's a different plant in the picture.

E: Hannah, I'm very selfishly happy that you did that because it's not on the same level as dead birds or fish, but it's a little bit goofy.

S: It's gonna happen.

E: It will. We all are gonna mess up. It's okay. 

S: We're all gonna mess things up, yeah.

I: We're always gonna mess things up. That's half the reason we do this part of the episode is so people can watch us struggle. Or listen to us struggle. 

E: Yeah. Honestly. If we sound too sciencey we get big heads.

S: And just know: I don't want to speak for my other co-hosts but when I'm hosting the episode, this is what I'm going through the entire, like, research phase beforehand. Like—

E: Yeah. 

S: —I find conflicting things and I'm like, “which one's right? Do I know anything? Am I even a scientist? Uh, who am?” 

I: I think that's called imposter syndrome, but I very much relate.

S: Yeah. We're all just faking it, so if you feel like you're faking it, solidarity.

I: All right. Should we jump into the official description?

S: Yes, please. We would appreciate it.

I: All right. So, it did take me a little bit to get a good official description because we get very

fancy wording when we talk about plants. I mean, honestly, when we talk about anything. 

S: Lots of jargon, yes. 

I: So what I have done is, I will be using that jargon but then explaining immediately what it means afterwards. I will take this as a moment just to tell you guys, we have transcripts for all of our episodes on our website. In those transcripts, I will be doing my best to find all of the fancy jargon and making sure it is defined, or you can click to a definition. So if it's too much to listen to all at once, please feel free to go check that out, and take a look! We try and make it as accessible as possible to everyone.

S: Yes. 

E: Yeah. That's what the whole point of this is: making science communicable and friendly, because it's not inherently friendly.

I: All right. So, this description is from the New York Botanical Gardens. The plant is described

as a perennial, and it comes from coarse, running, rhizome-like roots — so roots that

are just under the soil, running horizontally. It is erect — so very straight, as you guys said — usually simple-stemmed. It's one to three meters. It's covered in short, fine hairs.

S: Ooh. Does simple-stemmed mean it doesn't branch?

I: I believe so.

S: Okay.

I: In the inflorescence is where it's hairy. 

E: Love it, love it.

S: Oh, in the inflorescence?

I: Yeah.

S: Nice.

I: Just tiny, thin short hairs. Often, it's otherwise glabrous, which just means smooth. Also,

you'll get to watch me mispronounce all of these words. I told you I cannot pronounce things in normal English, let alone fake— Latin-science.

S: Made-up English, yeah.

I: Yeah. So it's often otherwise smooth, or nearly so. The leaves are actually alternate—

E: Oh, shoot.

I: —numerous, and crowded. So it has a lot of leaves. Hannah, you used a beautiful vocab word. It's called lanceolate — it's of a narrow oval shape, tapering to a point at each end — or lance-linear, which is the same thing but a little bit more narrow. These have pretty thin, narrow leaves. It's sessile, or subsessile, which means that the veins on it are not really raised much, if at all.

S: Oh, like the veins on the leaf?

I: Mm hm.

S: Cool. Didn't know that we made up words for that.

I: Yeah, well, sessile’s used also in a lot of other things where— I think of it as marine, normally. So, the racemes, which are the flower cluster, which contains separate flowers attached by short equal stalks at equal distances along the central stem. And in this case, the flowers of this kind of raceme, the base develops first and then it develops upwards, so you have those big open flowers at the bottom and then the buds at the top.

S: Ah! So Elizabeth was right!

I: Mm hm! So it states they’re terminal and elongate, so those flowers are located at the top of the plant. The flowers — there's many of them — they're pink and purple occasionally a little bit whitish. The petals are one to two centimeters long, short clawed — so I believe that just kind of means they've got a little indent, yeah. The hypanthium, which is— think of rose hips? It's where the petals and sepals attach.

E: So the base. The base of the flower.

I: Yeah. It's not prolonged beyond the ovary. So the ovary’s underneath the petals, and the hypanthium doesn't really go much longer than that.

E: Okay, so it's really short.

I: The style is basally hairy, and the stigma is deeply cleft. So, style is part of the male portion of the flower, and the stigma is part of the female portion of the flower. I'll probably include on our socials a little diagram for a refresher.

S: That would be helpful.

I: So, quite the mouthful of the description, but I hope some of the explanation helped a little bit. I do encourage you all to look up pictures — it'll make it a lot easier to visualize. 

E: This one's a trick to see without seeing it.

I: I mean, I think a lot of them are. I think certain species are a little bit more easy to picture, just because we have references, like, “oh, you say it's chimpanzee-like? That's something we can picture.”

E: Exactly! I was just thinking the bonobos aren't aren't too bad, but the plants and the mushrooms I'm definitely gonna need the photos.

I: If I was like, “oh, this flower looks like a sunflower” — it does not — that would be easier to picture.

S: Right.

I: So. You know!

S: Yeah. There's not really a very popularly-known equivalent.

E: Yes.

I: No, I think it is its popularly-known equivalent.

S: And the very specific vocabulary also makes it more difficult.

I: Yes.

E: I have a dichotomous key horror story. I've been trained in botany, okay, I took a botany job. I went in knowing what I thought was a good chunk of the terminology. My boss handed me a dichotomous key that had very small font and was 400 pages, and I spent an hour looking up the descriptions for just one page of key terms.

I: Yep, sounds right.

S: All right.

I: We love our jargon. All right, let's head on past all that fancy jargon in the description and let's talk a little bit about where you find these plants. So, fireweed is known to be in quite a few different locations, including inland wetlands, coniferous woodlands, burned areas is a big one, so it comes up after burning.

S: Makes sense.

I: Semi-open habitats of boreal forests.

S: Nice.

I: Yeah, it's a very common one in disturbed areas like that. It actually has been known for the reasoning why people will describe like, a pink color in areas of like, Alaska, the Yucatan, Quebec, and Boreal Eurasia, but it's found all the way up to the Arctic, where it's in sheltered areas of the tundra, and can range from sea level — so zero meters — to 16,000 feet above sea level.

S: Oh wow!

E: Very widespread. I love it.

I: Yeah, it's in like, the temperate region to the tundra areas of North America and Eurasia. And it's considered a circumpolar species because it's everywhere. I have a huge paragraph of countries it is found in. I don't know if you guys really want me to go through that paragraph, but I can.

E: Okay! Talk about a hardy flower. I am impressed, fireweed. Successful in a lot of niches. What kind of lifestyle does it have, Ilana? Is it part of a food web?

I: Yeah, so I don't have tons of information on the food web and stuff — I didn't grab that — but ecology-wise, it is again a post-fire plant so it's been studied in a lot of those areas. It's also studied in ethanol production, where places are thinking about using it and growing it for biodiesel and ethanol. I don't go deeply into those, but that is one of the things it's kind of known for. It also has some historical and modern uses. I don't want to go too deeply into them because it is a combination of traditional medicine and um, you know, health food medicine, so I don't have a background in that. I don't feel super comfortable giving people details about that because I don't want to recommend anything when I don't know. Um, but it does have a variety

of historical uses and modern uses, arranging for things from like, you know, little stomachache-helping to, you know, being considered “is it possibly a superfood?” supplement. Which happens to a lot of plants.

S: You said it's a perennial but takes advantage of disturbance in its perennial?

I: Yeah, so I guess one thing that I didn't really talk too much about but briefly mentioned is the rhizome-like roots. So it does kind of create an area where it'll start coming out of the ground and spread that way, and it'll come back.

S: Like horizontally along the rhizomes?

I: Yeah!

E: Can you guys define perennial for us?

S: Perennial means that the plant grows for more than one year, so I like to think of it— annual

means you have to plant it yearly, because it only survives for the one season. Perennial just means that it's there for more than two years, essentially.

E: Awesome, thanks!

S: You’re welcome.

I: So this plant can get outcompeted and tends to get outcompeted, you know, a few years after post-fire, but for the first few years it does pretty well and it can live in those, like, more grassy areas.

S: Beautiful. Love it.

I: Yeah. I didn't get a ton of information on its ecology so much. I spent a little bit more time learning some fun facts about why it's queer!

S: I can't wait!

E: Good choice. Good way to spend your time. I'm very happy. That's why we're here.

I: So let's talk a little bit about why this plant is queer but first I want to just give you a few definitions again. I apologize for so many definitions in this episode but again I encourage you to take a look at the transcripts to get a good understanding of them, and I'll try to make sure to define things as we go.

S: It's just gotta happen sometimes.

E: Yeah! The good news is, all of our introductory episodes where we start covering a new section of life — a new taxa — we're gonna have to try and make sure you guys are brought up to speed on the basic facts of it, like we did for the fungi. We're doing it now for the plants. So, the more we do this, the less it'll happen in future episodes, so that's a good thing.

I: And the more you know!

S: The more you know, yeah.

E: Exactly! We're learning really cool stuff, you guys.

I: Yeah. So let's just start with hermaphroditism, which is when there is the presence of

both a male and female sex organ within an organism. Which by the way: over 80% of all flowering plant species are hermaphrodites.

S: Amazing.

E: Yeah. So plants are basically queer. By human standards, they're just all queer. 

I: Yes. Another one is dichogamy, which is a temporal separation of male and female function

in flowering plants. So instead of having them at the same time, they'll separate them over time

E: Interesting.

S: Nice.

I: We also have protandry, which is when male function is first, which is thought to reduce

interference, where the function of one is disrupting the function of another — I’ll briefly explain that a bit more — and is often found for plants that are self-incompatible.

S: If a plant has both male and female parts but they're separated in time, is it still considered hermaphroditic, or does it need to be at the same time to be a hermaphrodite?

I: Nope, it's still considered hermaphroditic because it still has both sex organs, and oftentimes, you know, we say “over time” and in some cases it's just within the flower itself you might have both sexes like, organs being present in the plant, but just in two different flowers, or they might be totally separated. And that's the case for this plant.

S: Cool!

I: There's also protogyny, which is when female function’s first, which is thought to reduce inbreeding and is in self-compatible plants. Self-compatibility is not great when you're trying for genetic diversity, but it is great to ensure reproduction, especially if you're a plant that maybe

doesn't have a lot of your, uh, same species nearby. 

S: And, uh, what does self-compatibility mean, Ilana?

I: It means that it can fertilize itself, so a pollen grain, which contains the sperm of a plant, can land on the stigma of the plant and fertilize the egg, which is in the ovary. So, fireweed. Fireweed is a protandrous plant, so you can have male and female flowers on the plant at the same time, but within the same flower it's one or the other. So the individual flowers start male, and switch to being female. Typically this occurs within a few days.

E: Okay! How long do the flowers last?

I: A lot of plants’ flowers only last like, a day or so, and the pollen’s used up. In this flower pollen takes about— I believe it was three to five days to be used up, and then it’ll switch to female. It's probably closer to three days and spends a few days female before the flower dies.

S: Nice. So like, each individual flower only lasts about like, five or six days, but how long does the plant stay flowering for?

I: I believe the flowering period is a few months, but I'd have to double check. Again, remember it does start off so not all flowers are open at the same time. The bottom starts, and then it goes to the top. I don't have the exact time pointed out. I think that was probably in one of my many papers, but…

E: No worries.

I: So let's talk about why you, as a plant, would maybe want — and I briefly touched upon this — but why you would maybe want to have this differentiation. There are plenty of plants that are male and female at the same time, but why would you want to be male, then female? Well, so there's two main reasons that are given. The first one is to decrease self-fertilization, as I mentioned, and increase genetic diversity. If you're releasing pollen and your stigma is not

open to accepting them, you can't self-fertilize within that flower.

S: Ah!

I: Which reduces inbreeding depression, so it reduces — you know — the continuation of certain genes and increasing a gene pool. So if you keep self-breeding, you're probably going to lose variation within those genes over time.

S: If you do self-fertilize, but these plants don't do that. Yeah.

I: Yes. And then self-fertilizing of course reduces your chance at cross-fertilization, which would increase that genetic diversity. The other reasoning is decreasing interference. So interference,

as I briefly mentioned, is when a male or female function interferes with the other. So for females, female interference with a male is when the pistil reduces access to pollen by vector or

intercepting the pollen. So basically if— let's say you got a happy bumblebee. If it's gonna land on the pistil, which is part of the female section of the flower, it can't always reach the anthers to reach the pollen, so it'll have less pollen on it when it goes to the next place.

E: Okay.

S: So like the pistil which — correct me if I'm wrong — the stamen is on the pistil. So you're saying like, the pistil, when it's receptive to sperm, or to pollen, just kind of like, physically gets in the way of pollinators?

I: When the pistil is there it's receptive, it's normally pretty outright, it can be an area that a pollinator lands and then it doesn't hit the anthers, or it hits less of the anther.

S: Ah! That's so interesting. Wow.

E: That does make sense, right? In a lot of species it would be worth the inconvenience to self-fertilize, but it does make sense— I mean we all see bumblebees, and they're adorable, but they're not exactly the most precise flyers, so I'm not surprised.

S: They're not very coordinated.

I: I do suggest— watch bumblebees. Sometimes they just decide that it's perfect to move on to a new flower when they literally fall off the one they're on, and it's adorable.

E: Yep, I have seen this happen. It's very cute.

I: Love bumbles. So also if a plant is not able to self-fertilize, meaning that the stamen — the egg — it won't accept pollen from the same flower or from the plant itself — which some plants won't — that pollen might end up on that stigma, and then it's just not usable. It's not going to get anywhere. So that's kind of the other thing, is it's a receptor that maybe doesn't take what it's getting received.

S: So like it takes pollen from the same flower but it can't self-fertilize so then that pollen is basically wasted? Makes sense.

I: And then male interferes with female function if it's the reverse: if the stamens and the

anthers — which have the pollen — block contact of the pollinator from the stigmas, reducing the amount of that lands on the stigma.

S: Nice.

I: And pollinators oftentimes have a lot of pollen on them, but it's not all from the same plant, so,

you know, you want as much pollen to land on there as possible, to have the correct pollen land there. Also, there was a study, it said pollinators on hermaphroditic flowers often land between the anther and stigma, which results in indirect fertilization, thus less pollen is left on the stigma, and it can also result in the anther literally ending up being pushed and touching the stigma and pistil, resulting in self-pollination when it's maybe not wanted.

S: Ah. Interesting!

I: So, for fireweed — again as I said, it's male first and then becomes female — but every flower contains both parts both the anthers and the stigma. So during the male phase, the style, which holds the stigma, is reflexed, so it's inside, curled up in the flower, and the lobes of the stigma are closed, and then once the female phase begins, the the stigma opens and the style

straightens into position. So it kind of pops up into the flower and be like, “okay, it's time.” And pollen is not constantly produced by a flower. So its pollen typically in many flowers is gone within 24 hours. In this flower it takes three to five days, so by the time the stigma and style are aware, present, accepting, the pollen is normally gone.

S: Nice!

I: They are self-compatible, but again, it has a decreased chance of self-compatibility. Actually, in one of the pictures I sent you, by the way, I think you can actually — if you look closely — see that the bottom flowers have the stigma and style out, and then the higher up flowers do not.

S: The stigma and style out.

I: One of the close-up pics.

S: Oh, this first one? Yeah, I can tell. I can see the stigma in the bottom flower and then not in the top ones.

I: If you weren't— if you didn't know to look for it, you wouldn't notice it.

S: No. I would not have noticed that, yeah.

I: It's visible! And this image will be on our socials— I'll try and make it obvious to point out.

S: Nice!

I: So there's been numerous studies on other differences that occur within female and male stages of the flower. It's not just the stigma and style being present versus the anthers being out and full of pollen. There's other differences within these flowers. So, let's go a little bit into that because I think it's really interesting that it's more than just that that changes in the plant and in the flower when this occurs. So, one of the big things is nectar actually will change during this time, too. Pollinators get two main rewards when they go to these flowers, and not all flowers produce both, but there's nectar and there's pollen. Yes, we want the pollen to end up on another plant, but it's also food for the pollinators, and the nectar is really just there to target getting pollinators to come to it.

E: Right, it's like putting out a buffet bar. Or a pizza. Pizza.

I: So in these plants, when the flower is female, it actually produces more nectar than when it's male. Another thing is, the pollinators visit larger displays more frequently than smaller.

S: What are the pollinators of this plant? Are they insects? Are they bees? 

I: Yes, they're bees.

S: Oh, okay. Just wanted to make sure.

I: I believe they're primarily like, some bumblebees and Halictidae, but I have to double check again, because I just wrote “pollinator” in my notes.

S: Okay! I was just curious. 

I: I'll add that in. The male and female have differences in their nectar production, but actually the size of the flower does not change with the male or female. However, the larger flowers don't produce as much nectar.

S: Ah! Wow.

E: So does size vary— if it's not based on sex, is it just kind of variable as the plant grows?

I: So females produce more nectar than males. Larger displays also increase pollination chances, so if you remember, flowers are male first and then female, but also, flowers start blooming at the bottom and go all the way to the top. So when you have more flowers in general — so the inflorescence is bigger because there's more open flowers — you're more likely to have a lot of female flowers.

S: So like you're just saying as the plant gets older it's more likely to have more female flowers? Yeah, that does make sense.

I: Female flowers on average produce more nectar than male flowers. Larger flowers also are more likely to attract greater numbers of pollinators along with having increased nectar. When you have a lot of small flowers, you have a more even distribution of nectar between the genders, where when you have larger flowers you actually have that greater difference. So there's variation besides just, in the flower being male and female at separate points in time, there's also other differences occurring in the flowers. When you have large flowers, you have a greater— it's called the gradient, where you have, on average, greater nectar production in the female phase of that flower than in the male phase. So it's a gradient — male to female — of nectar production.

S: A greater difference between the two? Ah!

I: When you have smaller inflorescence displays — so less flowers, smaller flowers — the nectar distribution is a little bit more even between the genders.

S: That is interesting! 

I: So bumblebees are their main pollinator for these plants. When that gradient is present they actually probe fewer male flowers because they want more nectar, so they're gonna go visit the females preferentially. So the smaller inflorescence — smaller flowers — produce more flowers but have decreased seed production. They often sometimes end up aborting their seeds, probably because these plants are likely smaller and therefore can't support that, so that

it's kind of this assumption that small might actually be emphasizing the male portion of it, while the larger ones are going to emphasize the females. The larger is putting out more nectar to emphasize the female. It's going to be able to produce more seeds, while the smaller one— producing seeds requires a lot of energy. It probably can't put in that much energy so it's gonna really push more towards the male.

I: That makes sense. Right? It's probably safe to assume that there's a reason that it's small, like, that it— like for example that it doesn't have enough energy to… yeah.

E: And is this at different points in their life stages? Like that younger plants are small and the older plants are big? Or is there like a subspecies thing happening?

I: It might be variation within the population and it might be age. I'm not fully sure — I don't think this goes into it so much.

E: Okay, cool! Future questions.

I: So this source that I had is from Biernaskie and Elle 2005 ended up with this proposal: “we propose that the elevated nectar production of female phase flowers may be the most efficient way to increase the rate of pollinator visits to the inflorescence, and male fitness without exposing additional pollen to excess removal.” So by really focusing on producing more nectar when it's female, it can really focus on getting the pollinators to come and pollinate, as opposed to focusing on getting the pollen out there. So. Kind of a neat thing there. 

S: That's nice that it has the option, you know, like— it has both the male and the female reproductive mechanisms, so therefore with like, variation between years, with variation like, over a longer time scale, it can hopefully produce more years than not, even with changing conditions, because like Ilana said, like if there's a year where the plant doesn't get enough sun, or it doesn't get enough water, for some reason can't quite support itself as well and maybe doesn't have as much excess energy to put into producing seeds, it can just kind of be like, “well, I'm gonna make a lot of nectar when my uh, pollen’s out, so that I can hopefully get a lot of that out of there, and then it's the seed bearing plants’ problem,” after that. [laughing]

I: So that's just another thing that changes within this flower besides just literally having the male or female organs as the prominent portion of the flower, but there's some cool things that has to do with the temporal choice of this flower. And I say, you know, “choice”— it's an evolutionary, um, decision—

E: —decision that was not actually decided by the plant itself.

S: It's not a conscious thing, yeah. Like, it's our choice to be bipedals.

E: I wanna fly.

I: I choose— no, today I choose to have five feet. It's fine.

E: I want to have wings. Set me up.

I: Don't we all. 

S: That's the choice I want to make. Yeah.

I: But we talked a little bit about why it's so great to separate out the male or female, and I just have a few little more points to bring in, which is: remember these flowers start male and go to female, so by the end of the season you have a lot of female flowers, but that's occurring when there's less pollinators. At the beginning of the season there's a lot of pollinators, so they'll pick up all this pollen, but there's fewer pollinators at the end of the season which is when you

start having more females. So, early flowers open, release the pollen slowly over multiple days so multiple pollinators come and get it, which creates a greater chance of the pollen finding the elusive female because again, pollinators don't necessarily go to the same plant all the time. They might go back and drop off their pollen. So, by the late season, there's a ton of females available but less pollinators. So you've got, you know, lots of pollinators you want to make sure the pollen gets onto everything. When you have less pollinators you don't have to worry

about the pollen getting onto a million insects, you know, because there's gonna be like, let's say ten compared to like, a hundred.

E: Yeah. 

I: So it kind of works seasonally with how these pollinators work. I hope that made a little bit of

sense. If you have ten— if you have a hundred pollinators and only, let's say, five pollen — which is not how pollen works — you have to hope the five pollinators who ended up getting each grain of pollen find, you know, the three females that are there.

E: Yep, and not fly off to another plant, or go back to the hive, or get lost.

I: If you have 10,000 pollen and 100 pollinators, you have a likelihood of all of those pollinators carrying at least a little bit and hopefully finding those three females.

E: Yeah.

I: We're at the end of the season, let's say you have ten pollinators. You don't need 10,000 pollen for those ten pollinators, so you probably can get away with like, a hundred pollen and they'll hopefully find the like, 100 females. You know?

S: Yeah.

I: So in this case the terminology is male mating opportunity increases with season but decreases over time. Female duration positively correlates with the date, so females— the duration of that female flower will actually change throughout time.

E: Okay.

S: Oh, huh.

I: And the fact that the males opening first ensures that by the time the females open there's lots of pollen everywhere, except at the end of the season.

E: Yeah! Smart.

I: Also a cool thing is— as we said we don't want necessarily a lot of self-fertilization. Remember the male portion: it starts at the bottom goes to the top, it starts male, goes and

then becomes female, so the top of the flower is probably gonna be male while the bottom is female. Pollinators tend to start at the bottom of a plant and work their way up—

S: Ah! 

I: —so they're gonna hit the females first, which means hopefully they'll have pollen from another plant, and then by the time they get the pollen from that plant they're already onto

their next one.

S: Nice!

I: So it's kind of just fun little things that like, I wouldn't have thought of, but evolution did. It's great.

S: Those little hidden strategies, yeah.

I: So, I hope you enjoyed this dive into our first queer plant. There will be many more.

S: Fireweed! So cute.

I: Blooming Sally. 

[laughing]

S: Classic Sally.

I: Thank you guys! I hope I didn't hurt your brains too much.

S: No, we loved it.


S: Queerly Natural was created by Ilana Zeitzer, Elizabeth Fuhrman, and Hannah Roden with music by Migfus20. Thank you, Migfus, for putting your music in the Creative Commons. You are very talented. Visual design for the show is done by Ilana Zeitzer. To get updates about the podcast, follow us @queerlynatural on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We also upload all of our sources and episode transcripts to our website, queerlynatural.com. Above all else, if you liked what you heard today, tell your friends! Thank you so much for listening and keep an eye out for our next episode coming March 25th. Until next time, stay queer, and remember: queerly, it's natural.


References

  • van Andel J. 1975. A Study on the Population Dynamics of the Perennial Plant Species Chamaenerion angustifolium (L.) Scop. Oecologia 19: 329–337.

  • Antoń S, Denisow B, Komoń-Janczara E, Targoński Z. 2017. Nectary and gender-biased nectar production in dichogamous Chamaenerion angustifolium (L.) Scop. (Onagraceae). Plant Species Biology 32: 380–391.

  • Biernaskie JM, Elle E. 2005. Conditional strategies in an animal-pollinated plant: size-dependent adjustment of gender and rewards. Evolutionary Ecology Research 7: 901–913.

  • Mosquin T. 1966. A New Taxonomy for Epilobium angustifolium L.(Onagraceae). Brittonia 18: 167–188.

  • Moss EH. 1936. The Ecology of Epilobium angustifolium with Particular Reference to Rings of Periderm in the Wood. American Journal of Botany 23: 114–120.

  • Myerscough PJ. 1980. Epilobium Angustifolium L. Journal of Ecology 68: 1047–1074.

  • Routley MB, Husband BC. 2006. Sexual interference within flowers of Chamerion angustifolium. Evolutionary Ecology 20: 331–343.

  • Sargent RD. 2003. Seasonal changes in pollen-packaging schedules in the protandrous plant Chamerion angustifolium. Oecologia 135: 221–226.

  • Sargent RD, Mandegar MA, Otto SP. 2006. A Model of the Evolution of Dichogamy Incorporating Sex-Ratio Selection, Anther-Stigma Interference, and Inbreeding Depression. Evolution 60: 934–944.

  • Sargent RD, Roitberg BD. 2000. Seasonal decline in male-phase duration in a protandrous plant: a response to increased mating opportunities? Functional Ecology 14: 484–489.

  • Sõukand R, Mattalia G, Kolosova V, Stryamets N, Prakofjewa J, Belichenko O, Kuznetsova N, Minuzzi S, Keedus L, Prūse B, et al. 2020. Inventing a herbal tradition: The complex roots of the current popularity of Epilobium angustifolium in Eastern Europe. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 247: 112254.

Show Notes

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About Us

Queerly Natural was created by Ilana Z, Hannah Roden, and Elizabeth Fuhrman. We are biologists fighting queerphobia, promoting underrepresented perspectives, teaching ecology, and helping queer people relate to the diverse organisms we live among on this beautiful planet! Our music is "Lo-Fi Music Guitar (Short Version)" by Migfus20 (https://freesound.org/people/Migfus20/sounds/578131/), licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.


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