Thursday, 21 March 2013

Original, traditional and truly American

Native from North America, the Saguaro cactus can only be found in the Sonoran Desert (US states of Arizona and California and Northwestern Mexico). The peculiarity of such plant is part of the imaginary of the native tribes since ancient times. Many legends have been build-up around the cactus; many of those legends confer special gifts or divine powers to these plants. Its shape and size (which can grow over 20 meters tall) makes a superb view along the desert landscapes, and this was probably the reason why natives believe that the Saguaro cacti were reincarnations of the spirits of Native American warriors, standing in the desert as guardians of their people with arms upwards, supplicating for water and light to the Creator.

Seri People in Sonora Desert, Mexico (Photo: Graciela Iturbide, 1979)

As in a desert whatever you find is a gift from heavens, the Saguaro has been venerated for generations and used as a source of food and shelter for the natives, especially by the Tohono O’odham and the Mexican Seri people, as well as for other inhabitants of the desert. The fruits are an important food source not only for the people but also for birds, whereas the plant itself is used by some species for nesting. The needles were used for sewing, and other parts of the plant were used to build shelters or to produce tools.

A - Parabuteo unicinctus (Photo: Walter Meayers Edwards); B - Micrathene whitneyi (Photo: Bruce D. Taubert); C - Zenaida asiatica; D - Bubo virginianus (Photo: Jim Zipp)

But the real magic happens during the quiet night, when pollination takes place. Any guess on who’s starring this time? Bats! Just take a look at the flowers – white, open, big and on the top of that, it releases a sweet smell of nectar during the night. 

Bat pollination of Saguaro flowers by Leptonycteris yerbabuenae
(Photos by: Merlin Tuttle / Bat Conservation International)  

However during the day the cacti flowers keep opened, so other animals can pollinate when bats are asleep – after all, nothing forbids them to do the job, even though the main pollinator is the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae). Unfortunately these bats are threatened and considered Vulnerable according to IUCN, especially due to habitat destruction.

Day pollinators

We have to admit cacti flowers are absolutely gorgeous. More than the natural gorgeousness, they are a botanically interesting case to study. Caryophyllales’ members tend to be odd and have their own peculiarities, and so does Cactaceae, having an immense (botanically speaking, we actually say infinite) number of petaloid tepals. No, not petals – they are not real petals, Caryophyllales lack petals and this is probably one of the reasons why so many different trends arose in this group. They had to find a way to attract pollinators even though they did not have petals to do it! What a task… But they went over it and they reinvented petals with the genetic sources they had. Phenotypically, my dear Cactaceae, I must admit I love what you invented – isn’t Nature truly an artist?

Photo source: Flickr (J Rindrr)

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

On the path of the begin

The Gaokerena tree, or the Tree of Life in the Zoroastrian tradition, is one of the manifestations of the Haoma-plant. In the legend, divine birds have brought the plant from heaven to the Elburz Mountains (Iran). According to the Zoroastrian tradition the plant it is collected in a box, placed in an iron vase and only after the priest has washed several pieces of the plant it can be used along, of course, rituals and prayers. The sacred juice is usually mixed with other herbal extractions and finally you have it - Amrut, an authentic elixir of life!

The Gaokerena Tree, or the Tree of Life

This plant was believed to give strength to men and gods, some myths say that the juice from this plant can restore and give long life along with other important properties. Such a deep meaning for a culture, I thought, the plant had to have hallucinogenic effects – that is how many times humans relate the terrain with the mystical and sacred, or the other side of life. For sure this “long-life elixir” had to be related with it and indeed, most specialists have been trying to understand which plant were in the origin of the sacred recipe. A lot of theories have rouse, but Ephedra seems to be a good hint, and ephedrine the main component of the heavenly drink.

Those who know Ephedra are familiar with its peculiarity and are aware that this plant does not have flowers – so what is the purpose, you might be thinking, of posting a story of a non-flowering plant in a blog about flowers? The answer is simple: because of evolution. The evolutionary history of flowers is a very interesting story on its own, and, even though the discussion about the ancestor of flowering plants is still running, Ephedra seems to have characters of both Angiosperms and Gymnosperms. It is true that it does not have real flowers, but cones (similarly to Conifers); however… What is in fact a flower? A structure bearing sexual organs and protective leaf-like organs.  The strobili were already compared to inflorescences of angiosperms, and there are indeed similarities – so, even though Ephedra does not have real flowers (according to the modern definition of flower), the reproductive structures resemble so, they seem to be the ancestors of flowers (or at least inflorescences).

A – Part of a male strobilus; B – Cyme (type of inflorescence in Angiosperms) The circles represent both microsporangia (A) or flowers (B); Comparing both structures, the strobilus resembles a condensed cyme, where the bracts act as a perianth (already present as part of the flowers in B)

Ephedra is usually dioecious, with male and female strobili and each strobili acts as a condensed inflorescence, where each bract bears a flower, a group of micro or megasporangium (except for the lower bracts which are usually sterile). Each one of these sporangia are also protected by leaf-like structures, the bracteoles.

Even though it is not represented here, each microsporangium is borne in a stalk called sporangiophore
[Photo Source:]  

Meanwhile the male strobilus produces a large number of microsporangia, the female strobilus produces only a pair of ovules, each corresponding to a terminal bract.
Though anemophily (pollination through wind) is an important pollination syndrome in Ephedra, it is been reported entomophily in some species. The pollen grains are caught in the pollination drop, which contains many nutrients, including high concentration of sucrose. Also, some authors argue that drops of nectar can be found in both female and male cones in several species, which contributes to the attraction of insects to do the very much appreciated job of pollen transfer and the consequent origin of the modern flower.

[Photo Source:]

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Flower Tales on Facebook

Flower Tales is on Facebook! You are welcome to like the page, all the new stories published here will be also shared on the Facebook page so you can share with friends. Like the page here!

Have a beautiful day!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The eternal reflection of a narcissistic life

"I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected."
– Oscar Wilde

The legend of Narcissus is a very well known Greek myth and as the Greeks have accustoming us, this one is another beautiful and tragic story.

Narcissus was a handsome young man, which used to go hunting to the woods. One day a nymph named Echo saw Narcissus and immediately fell in love, however due to the curse that goddess Hera casted on her, Echo was not able to speak on her behalf – she could only speak by repeating what others had said, so she could not explain the love she had for the young mortal. Narcissus became tired of Echo’s repeated and nonsensical words, and insulted her since he didn’t feel the same. Echo was heartbroken – big mistake Narcissus! Everyone knows that breaking a female’s heart can be of great danger, now imagine breaking a nymph’s heart – a being that has direct contact with the celestial creatures. The other nymphs thought Narcissus deserved to be punished, and Zeus agreed. Again when Narcissus was hunting, he was lead to the lake to drink some water. As soon as he bent to the pond he glimpsed his reflection in the water and fell in love with what he saw.

Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse

He couldn’t do anything anymore except staring at the water and his own true love – himself! He couldn’t eat or sleep anymore, life started to leave him but not before he understood and regret his behavior with Echo. Zeus and the nymphs took pity on him, but it was already too late, they could not restore mortal life, so Narcissus body was transformed into a flower, blooming every spring with the “head” bending to the water.

Narcissus calcicola [Source: Flora-On]
It is very easy to identify the Narcissus flowers due to the presence of a corona, also commonly known as trumpet. I have mentioned this organ before, but whilst in Passiflora the corona is formed by a considerable number of needle-shape structures, Narcissus shows a petal-like structure – here the corona looks like an outer-formation of the perianth, but keep in mind that it is an independent organ and although it is fused with the perianth and is similar to it in many aspects, it is not the same thing, and it is more complex than just an outgrowth of the tepals.

Floral structures in Narcissus calcicola
Narcissus was indeed a very handsome being, but what seemed to be a bliss ended up being his curse, leading him to death. Nobody was good enough for him because nobody was at his level. He became blind with himself, focused only on his reflection – the rest of the world was a complete nothingness. Narcissus showed us in a dramatic way how important it is to respect the love from one another and that contemplation can be the solution for the problems that we keep being focused on. So do never forget, whenever you’re bending your head down, remember that the world is to be contemplated with the head up!