Right, prepare yourselves. In this article I’m going to say ‘sperm’ a lot, attached to a lot of different words that could all be used to make inappropriate jokes.
‘Sperma’ is the Greek rooted word for ‘seed’ – and that’s where it comes from.
An ‘Angiosperm’ – for all it may sound like an inappropriate joke about an Irish prostitute, is a flowering plant.
A ‘gymnosperm’, for all it may sound like an inappropriate joke about iron-pumping meatheads using steroids causing atrophied testicles, is actually a plant that reproduces without flowers.
If I talk about ‘endosperm’ it’s not an inappropriate joke about male infertility, which is no laughing matter, but actually refers to a coating around the seed that provides nutrients.
Both gymnosperms and angiosperms are ‘spermatophytes’ – that’s not a bunch of jizz sat around waving their arms and cheering at a heavyweight boxing match. They’re just seed plants, plants that produce seeds.
So if, like me, you’re inevitably going to giggle at some point at all the –sperm getting chucked around, do it now, please.
Because, I’m going to come clean, for all my lacklustre bio-credentials and the fact that I did actually formally study it at one point I never ‘got’ plants. Obviously I know they’re amazing and important and I love them. Walking amidst them is one of the greatest pleasures in life, having one in the corner of your room, no matter how humble, brightens up any room and they’re just great.
It’s the study of them where I dropped the ball. I don’t understand their lives, their behaviours, never mind photosynthesis which, as far as I am concerned, is light-based quantum wizardry being done by plants.
I suppose I always liked to keep them at that distance, too. I dive headfirst into so many of life’s mysteries that they are my elected ignorance.
But I do know some things about plants and one of them is that angiosperms, the flowering plants, are fucking enigmatic.
They’re a diverse group, for a start, if you’ve got greenery near you have a browse – how much of it is flowering plants? How many different kinds? There’re a lot of them, about 300,000 species currently known across all sorts of genera, families and orders.
But it’s their potential evolution that is so incredible to consider.
For one thing we don’t know exactly when the first flowering plants evolved. The earliest fossil record of definite angiosperm pollen is an estimated 134 million years old, with fossils of the flowers or plants themselves not coming for another 10 million years. However to have got to the stage being ‘angiosperm pollen’ something would have had to evolved into an angiosperm and herein lies the mystery.
And it is a mystery! I know I’m all about doubt and not knowing as a philosophy at We Lack Discipline but all of botanical, paleobotanical and life science is still unsure exactly when flowering plants evolved, and from what.
What’s more we then have the notion of ‘pollination’. Flowers don’t fuck, rather they lazily leave packets of their reproductive cells hanging about, known as ‘pollen’ and wait for something, an animal, a swift breeze, an insect to carry it off. Human sex would be a lot weirder if we’d have had to evolve to leave packets of jizz about the place in the hope that one day the dog picks it up and deposits it in a woman’s vag but that’s literally what flowering plants do!
At least that’s what the ‘male’ part of the plant does, as they are hermaphroditic. So they make pollen to be randomly spaffed into other flowers and they, themselves, have spaff-holes known as carpels.
…We haven’t even touched photosynthesis and if this doesn’t already seem like magic to you then you’re either a botanist or boring (or both?).
But this process of pollination requires a pollinator – something to carry the pollen.
Now, honestly this part is easy. There are plants that have burr-type seeds that stick to coats, fruits that have indigestible seeds so they pass right through the guts of what eats them and get freshly planted in fertiliser and – hell – you can shake the pollen off of flowers and disperse it to the breeze if push comes to shove.
I can imagine how a plant could have evolved where pollen would spread as spore in the breeze, or carried in the feathers of dinosaurs, or, even as today, brushed up on an insect.
But bees – I’m sure you’ve heard of them – Well they are evolved from wasps, and almost all bees are pollinators. In fact having recently been doing a lot of Bee IDing recently I can tell you one sure fire way to tell if it’s a bee or not is to check for pollen sacs.
Flowering plants didn’t just change the game for plants. Flowering plants completely changed how all life evolved! They barely existed until around 150 million years ago and now something like 90% of all plants are flowering plants. Almost every human crop species is a flowering plant.
This was a process ongoing during the Cretaceous, the final era of the dinosaurs, but you know those tall trees with flowers on? Things like horse-chestnut, ash…If you’re not the UK, eucalyptus, gum trees, or the tallest angiosperm on earth, the yellow meranti tree of Asia? These didn’t start to take off until the late-Cretaceous, about 70-65 million years ago.
I know to a piddly little human who lives four-score-and-ten it seems like forever but in my shark articles I talked about how they are approximately 420 million years old! Flowering plants are a new-kid on the block!
Some conifers, cycads and ferns evolved their ways of life 250-300 million years ago. Moss has been more-or-less the same for nearly 500 million years. If Moss is a 50 year old man, flowering trees are a 6 year old kid!
When we think about life 65 million years ago we think of the extinction event that finally changed the earth enough to end the dominance of the dinosaurs and usher in the Paleogene period, during which mammals would grow, adapt, take on all forms to fill all niches left in the dinosaurs’ wake. Even I’m guilty of it.
What we don’t think of, occurring in the background through the Cretaceous and into the Paleogene is angiosperms, flowering plants, doing the same as the mammals.
I look out of my window now and I can see wild rose, I can see elderflower, I see the big, white trumpets of ivy flowers. In my own garden there are towers of foxgloves and strawberries either in bloom or fruiting, my neighbour has pansies and the delicate little balletic fuchsia flowers.
They’re babies! In the grand scheme of life, they’re babies.
Yet there’s so much we don’t know and understand about how they came to be or how they developed their mutualisms with pollinators. We have an entire group of species in bees that wouldn’t exist if not for flowers. It’s remarkable to think of that!
If you’re following me you’ll know the Big Wasp Survey is back on – if you didn’t know that have a read of this and join in an amazing citizen science project. The theme is wasps on flowers and they want photographs of, unsurprisingly, wasps on flowers.
The thing is it’s so wasp focussed – and I get it, wasps are brilliant – but don’t forget about that flower. They have their magic and mysteries but, they’re definitely mostly our friends, too.
I’ve also recently written a guide on hedge-spotting – All of the photos in today’s article were taken on one short nature walk doing just that, so it’s a great way to spot many of our amazing wildflowers.
Read that guide here.