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ECOVIEWS: What’s your blooming hurry, bud?

September 23, 2018

I will be traveling the next two weeks and am recycling a couple of columns. This column, about a surprising plant performance, was one of my mother’s favorites.

I was visiting my sister in Tuscaloosa, and as we prepared to sit down for the evening meal, a next-door neighbor knocked frantically on the door. “Hurry!” she said. “The primrose is blooming.” We looked at Donna standing on the porch, then at each other. Unspoken but obvious questions hung over the table: What on earth was she talking about? Was this blooming primrose worth returning to a cold supper?

My sister’s and brother-in-law’s looks were edged with some concern for their friend and neighbor. But Donna’s urgency prevailed. The group decision was made. The three of us followed Donna to her house. She headed toward a row of shrubbery. In the fading light of dusk we could just make out each other’s sidelong, quizzical looks.

We stopped at a bush bearing half a dozen bright yellow flowers, each with four primly arranged petals. She pointed to an unopened bud. “Watch. Watch. It’s going to open.” Our puzzlement over Donna’s behavior was quickly replaced by curiosity about the primrose. We could see the pale-yellow bud quivering on the branch. It began to unfurl. Within five seconds the bud had spun open completely. A perfect primrose flower bloomed on the bush. From bud to flower in seconds. The performance was most dramatic for a plant. Aside from watching a Venus-flytrap capture a housefly, I had never seen a plant do anything so remarkable. Type-A behavior; truly a plant in a hurry. A moment later another bud did the same thing.

Animal behaviorists can be found in universities throughout the world, but if plant behaviorists exist, they are rare. In such a profession, an expert might focus on carnivorous plants that reverse the food chain on animals or sensitive mimosa plants whose leaves close when touched or plant species that catapult their seeds. In a circus showcasing plant behavior, the primrose performers would take the center ring in the Big Top. Why do these flowers open with such fanfare? One need not be a botanist to theorize about nature’s mysteries.

We assumed that like many other night-blooming flowers, these primroses were pollinated by nocturnal animals such as moths or other fly-by-night insects. Particular insects are often vital for the pollination of particular plant species. The scent emanating from the primrose was sweet; perhaps in its natural habitat the fragrance was an attractive lure to some special evening visitor. Had we been in Arizona, we might have speculated that bats were the pollinators. Turns out the open flower of the evening primrose attracts a beautiful little pink and yellow creature, the primrose moth, which is a primary pollinator.

But why was the flowering act completed in such an abrupt fashion? Most flowers produce their sweet smells over several days. The evening primrose packages its scent into one sudden burst of fragrance. Could the flower’s perfume be propelled a greater distance into the night air and, therefore, be more likely to reach a waiting audience of primrose moths? Could the rapid unfurling of the petals assure that any airborne scent will be sent afar? Some botanists would want to test or even dismiss such ideas, but speculating is the first step. The flowers wilt the following day, but other buds await their turn the next evening. Evening primroses are more than just fascinating entertainers; most parts of the plant are edible with proper preparation.

Unsuspected traits such as the one observed in the evening primrose are a feature of every species of plant and animal on Earth. Such traits are only revealed when someone is present at exactly the right time and place. Each year, research ecologists discover new attributes of the most common plants and animals, not to mention discoveries about rare and unusual species. And the burgers reheated nicely in the microwave.

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