How Flowers Make Love

Biologist David Haskell holds the magnifying lens to the fascinating lives of forest dwellers in his Pulitzer Prize finalist book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature

“Biochemical matchmaking” the term used by Haskell says it all. The union is a unique arrangement among two, not one, sperm cells encased within a pollen grain and the “fleshy ovule” burrowed deep in the base of the style. The sperm cells drift passively all the way down to the base and prove their merit by outlasting others.

Once united, one sperm cell embraces the egg to make an embryo, while the other sperm cell finds his mates in two small plant cells that join to give rise to a larger cell with a triplet DNA, one from each participant. Like the yolk of an egg, this plant cell grows and fattens to provide nutrients to the rapidly dividing embryo eager to become a seed.

The plants that are unable to find a mate do not give up so easily either. Many choose “desperate self love” using their own pollen sperm cells to self fertilize their egg if no suitable match lands on their sticky landing pad-the stigma-  sacrificing genetic enrichment for mere survival and an opportunity to try their luck again in the next season of love making.

Unable to travel to their lovers’ nest themselves, these flowers rely on bees, birds and other pollinators to carry their pollen to other flowers. In return they reward these mailmen with nectar. As always there are thieves like ants that want the reward without doing the work.  These bypass the pollen and go right for the sugar.

Like the interwoven lives of the creatures that inhabit the forest, Haskell seamlessly stitches together the tales of interdependence among species with the elegance of a wordsmith and the prowess of a seasoned scientist. The premise of the book is a year’s worth of ecological observations focused on a “singe square meter” of a forest in Tennessee- Haskell’s mandala, Sanskrit for microcosm. What he does beautifully and successfully as a popular science writer is tie everything he sees back to the scientific explanations behind the phenomenon, inspiring a deep appreciation for other species and nature in general.

The reading offers an animated experience with Haskell spotting a member of the forest- xylem, moth, Chickadee birds, or simply a snow flake- and zooming into its colossal inner world, revealing how beautifully complex and complete its life is. You read the book and realize a moth is not just a moth, a flower not just a flower, a snail not just a snail, but each a functioning organ supporting the intricate anatomy of the forest, keeping it alive in inclement weather, drought, and other hardships.

All the questions you asked as a kid: how does a snowflake get its shape; Why are there rings on a tree trunk, some diffuse, some distinct; what’s moss- get answered in an experiential and fascinating narrative. A must read for nature lovers!

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