Plant Sex on Display at the World Pride FNL "OUT of the Cupboards" Event

Posted: July 3, 2014 - 15:12 , by royal
Sign for the botany table in the Schad Gallery for the "OUT of the cupboards" event

Last Friday, June 27th, the ROM hosted a Friday Night Live with the rainbow-coloured theme of World Pride. In addition to the usual food, drinks and music, this event included a special series of displays called “OUT of the Cupboards” where we were asked to bring out our best examples of weird and wonderful sexuality. I decided to represent the botanical collections and prepared a table combining pressed herbarium specimens with seeds, fruits and cones from our collection as well as fresh flowers obtained from both the U of T greenhouses and Allan Gardens. The goal of my display was to demonstrate some of the vast diversity of sexual strategies among plants: from asexual reproduction to self–fertilization to wind and animal pollination. I also wanted to take the chance to remind people that flowers are all about sex!

Maroon flowers of Aristolochia gigantea (Brazilian Dutchman's pipe)
I had a flower of Aristolochia gigantea (Brazilian Dutchman's pipe) on display, with its swollen perianth chamber and flared opening (pictured above). This flower traps pollinators and douses them in pollen. A related species (Aristolochia clematitus) was used in medieval herbalism on women during childbirth due to its resemblance to a womb and birth canal (all parts of the plant are now know to be toxic).

There was a constant current of people flowing past my table the whole night, and most had that wide-eyed gaze of a curious child, which I was happy to see and very glad to indulge. At my table, I would lead each person, couple or group through a few specimens and try my best to get to one of those breakthrough moments when someone exclaims, “I didn’t know plants could be male or female” or “Flowers can be so sneaky!”

Person holding Lodoicea maldivica (Coco de Mer) fruit


Male inflorescence of Lodoicea maldivica
Lodoicea maldivica (Coco de Mer): [top] the fruit, produced on female plants, gave the palm its old name Lodoicea callipyge, from the greek: kalli (beautiful) and pugé (buttocks); [bottom] the staminate inflorescence borne on male plants of the species can grow to over a meter long.

I combined specimens that had interesting historical, evolutionary or ecological stories with demonstrations and mini-quizzes to keep things interesting. For example, I know that most people are familiar with orchids as houseplants, but many of those same people are not aware of the fascinating way that orchids glue their pollinia onto visiting pollinators. I demonstrated this by showing how you can use your finger to imitate a pollinator and, with a bit of dexterity, end up with pollinia stuck to your fingernail. I also had a game where I pointed to three different cones (two of which bear female structures and one which bears male structures) and asked, “which of these is not like the others?” The goal was not to have people guess correctly on the first try, but to have them look at the specimens with a more critical eye and prime them for the short explanation that I would follow up with. I found that these activities also acted as ice-breakers, encouraging people to interact and ask questions about the display.

From left to right: Cedrus deodora (himalayan cedar) female cone; Cycas revoluta (sago cycad) male cone; Pinus ponderosa (ponderosa pine) female cone
From left to right: Cedrus deodora (himalayan cedar) female cone; Cycas revoluta (sago cycad) male cone; Pinus ponderosa (ponderosa pine) female cone.

Overall, it looked like people had a great deal of fun, and at an event like this, I think that humor and entertainment were the real goals. Although the crowd drawn by Friday Night Live tends to be a boisterous bunch, I also found them to be curious, intelligent and very pleasant to speak with. At the end of each interaction, I always leave off with a tag line something like “I hope you learned something new, now go out and learn some more!” which, when you think about it, is an amazing thing to be saying to someone on what could otherwise be described as an all-out party-till-you-drop kind of night.