Saturday, 2 March 2013

Plant Sexuality

A Dog's Life

Hazel catkins in spring
Nobody seemed to know where the dog came from, he just appeared in the central aisle of the church, intent on having a good time.

Three of us had formed a group to play folk music and we'd do it for anyone masochistic enough to ask us. In this case, the priest of the local catholic church had asked us perform in a service, doing stuff like Kum ba ya and other songs which loosely fitted a religious remit. In order to lead the congregation in singing, we'd been positioned on one of the steps of the altar. We'd finished the first song and the priest was doing his preaching bit when the dog arrived. He was a mongrel with a black spot over one eye, one ear which stood up and a constantly wagging tail. At first not many people noticed as he proceeded along the aisle, cocking his leg up on every third line of pews. I was mesmorised: I couldn't understand how such a small dog could have such a large bladder.

Anyway, the priest, who was a stand-in for the bloke who'd invited us - he'd got 'flu or something- suddenly noticed the interloper and stopped talking. He looked witheringly at the dog, who responded by wagging his tail even more furiously while giving another demonstration of the infinite capacity of his bladder:

"Get that dog out, will you", the priest intoned through gritted teeth, addressing a bloke on the end of the front row who seemed to be an usher (and here I'll refrain from coming out with the old one about an usher being someone who tells people to shut up - no way will I sink that low). The man who, until this point, hadn't seen the dog, looked round, spotted him and went to pick him up. This, it seemed to the dog, was someone who fancied a game, so he went into a 'come and get me, then' position, resting on his front elbows with his bottom in the air until   the bloke was almost up to him, then rushed off along an empty pew, emerging at the far end. Here he waited again, adopting the same pose, obviously  thinking that church was great fun. By this time, the rest of the congregation had cottoned on to what was going on and the usher was joined by a number of other people. All we could see from our vantage point was buttocks bouncing above the barrier of the pews as fruitless lunges were made to capture him.

Hazel  (monoecious) clearly showing male and female flower
The usual priest would probably have dealt with this situation by laughing and perhaps incorporating a joke in his sermon but the stand-in took himself seriously.This one had reached a state where he was daft enough to try canine excommunication or something. He was fuming, building up a head of steam, and this led him to make the big mistake: he joined in, and the priestly buttocks joined the throng. The first couple of rows of pews now resembled a headless Punch and Judy show.

If God was watching, he'd be rolling his eyes.

Eventually, the dog got fed up, saw us on the altar steps and scampered over. Then, to my horror, he sat at my feet and looked up at me in panting adoration. All eyes turned on me. This, in the mind of the congregation and the by now incoherent-with-wrath priest implied that it was my dog. I grabbed him and, with a sickly smile, carried him to the side door, put him outside and shut the door firmly. When I made my way back to the group the priest glowered at me, obviously regretting the decision of his resident colleague in getting us involved. I don't think my three- chord guitar work helped, either. However he had little option than to continue his sermon.

Unfortunately, everyone had overlooked the ingenuity of the little dog, because, within minutes he reappeared, having found the main door at the far end to be open. This time however, the priest ignored him, ploughing on with a sermon which  became more and more hell and damnation in direct proportion to the workings of Fido's bladder.

And this became a problem to me: I had always been useless at school. The one thing I excelled in was laughing. The more I shouldn't, the more I had to. In junior school we had a teacher called Miss Roberts. Everyone was scared stiff of her, including, I suspect, the other teachers. Anyway, on one particular occasion, she caught me laughing and obviously decided to show me up:

"John Steedman", she said in a threatening voice, "come out to the front".

I sloped to the front of the class, thinking this was the day I was going to die.

"Face the class", she told me and I turned slowly to look at them.

"Now laugh", she said. She'd probably read  in Froid or Jung  or somewhere, that if you scare the excreta out of someone they are unlikely to laugh. Unfortunately my reading hadn't progressed that far and, as I faced my classmates, their blank faces brought back the irrepressible urge and, following a battle to control myself, I started to shake with suppressed laughter. Very shortly the other kids started to giggle and, in no time the whole class was in stitches. I looked round in terror at Miss Roberts and realised there was no need to worry. The old battleaxe was laughing.

And now it started to happen again. It wouldn't have if I hadn't been looking out at a sea of serious faces, or had been free to laugh. It was the fact that to do so would be unthinkable. I stared determinedly at the carpeted floor, willing myself to think of carpet fluff but it didn't work. My shoulders were shaking and I thought my head would explode. Tears were running down my cheeks.

I'm not saying that the congregation collapsed in laughter, but a lot of them seemed to find the woodwork of the pews as interesting as my carpet fluff and a number of explosive snorts turned out to be some sort of catarrhal  problem needing the application of a handkerchief. The priest was no Miss Roberts, and seethed his way to the end of the service.

The sad ending to this story is that the little dog converted to C. of E., we were never asked back, and there was a rumour that the priest had given up his calling in favour of driving buses.

The reason I bring all this up is that it happened at this time of year: there were flowers on one of the church window sills and someone had arranged them with hazel twigs laden with catkins.

Skimmia japonica (dioecious) berries
The sex life of plants is a subject in its own right. Some plants, like Skimmia, holly, spotted laurel, Pernettya and many others are dioecious. The word literally means 'two houses', because the male and female flowers occur on different plants. This is of importance to the gardener because if we go to the garden centre and choose, say, a holly so that we can enjoy the berries at Christmas, we'd better make sure it's a female. It stands to reason that, if we get a bloke it's not going to have babies and, even if we do get a female, there needs to be a male somewhere in the vicinity in order for pollination to occur.

The hazel (Corylus avellana) is a native plant which is termed 'monoecious' and it follows from what has already been said that this means 'one house'. In this case, the male and female flowers occur on the same plant but as different structures. The photo shows the male catkin, which releases pollen and the separate female flower existing as a number of red tassels emanating from a tiny bump. When pollen from the male reaches it, the bump develops into a hazel nut. It's interesting to note that the male and female flowers on one plant often mature at different times. This is because one plant benefits from being fertilised  by another  because too much inbreeding can cause genetic defects. The same applies to human beings: breeding within the family leads to all sorts of problems (although if you watch 'Deliverance', you get the message that you'll be able to play a mean banjo). Alder, the tree we associate with river banks, is another example of a monoecious plant: it has tassels but its female flower develops into small seed-bearing cones.

And then there are the hermaphrodite plants, those like buttercup, lily and rose which posess both male and female sexual appendages in the same flower.

The more you look at the sex life of plants, the more diverse it becomes. There don't seem to be many fixed rules: the individuals have all evolved the system which is perfect for them. Methods of spreading seeds are equally adventurous and deserve a look at in a coming blog.

Lilium regale (Regal lily) - hermaphrodite flower
Rose - hermaphrodite flower

No comments:

Post a Comment