Bangin’ botany

A crash course in plant reproduction

Don Cipollini, professor and bug sex expert; photo: Amanda Dee

By Amanda Dee

Some parts of life are inescapable: death, taxes, and, apparently for this writer, bug sex.

Hear me out—I went to professor Don Cipollini’s lab with honorable intentions. I wanted a botany lesson, a family-friendly educational experience. But as it turns out, plant reproduction often calls for bugs to get it on, too.

Cipollini earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana University and his doctorate from Penn State. He has been teaching in Wright State University’s Department of Biological Sciences for 18 years, specializing in plant physiology and chemical ecology, in addition to serving as director of the Environmental Sciences Ph.D. Program. His lab recently discovered the Emerald Ash Borer can find and feed off other species of trees.

So he kind of knows what he’s talking about.

He tells me plants aren’t demure green things innocently resting in our window sills and backyards, but dynamic, reactive organisms. “They’re manipulative, they can be deceptive, they can be nurturing and rewarding,” he continues. “But they have a whole slew of tricks and treats to achieve reproduction. There are lots of analogies to humans.”

And as with humans, sex isn’t always black and white. Some plants, like the tomato, are hermaphroditic, germinating flowers on one specimen with both male and female parts. Some, like the cucumber, produce male and female flowers on the same plant. Other species can even change their sex over the course of a season or throughout their lifetimes, such as the marijuana plant. Others display male and female flowers on separate plants, which is how bugs, and sometimes animals like bats, enter into the mix: Plants have evolved with insects and animals to ensure pollination, but most of these interactions also benefit the pollinator, a relationship referred to as “mutualism” in biology-speak (which is why many scientists, Cipollini included, stress the importance of maintaining pollinator populations).

But I’ll let the expert fill you in:

The birds and the bees

“The plants have egg cells and they have sperm cells, just like animals do. The key difference with, say, sperm in plants, is that it does not swim. And it has to be delivered from one flower to another in order to ensure cross-pollination and maintenance of genetic diversity. Some plants, they use the power of the wind to blow pollen around and it lands on flowers of the same species. And then the pollen itself: One of the cells that emerges out of a pollen grain is the sperm cell, and that has to unite with an egg cell in the base of a flower to create a zygote, a baby plant, that will be present in a seed with a little package of food around it to start the next generation.”

Pick-up tricks

Orchids: “These flowers actually release pheromones that smell like female orchid bees and that attracts male orchid bees to the flower from a distance. And when they get near the flower, there are parts of the flower that look like a female bee, and so these males try to mate with the flower. And in so doing, they get this pollen smack placed on them from the flower that kind of sticks the pollen onto the bee when it’s trying to mate—having no success, of course—and then it will fly to another flower and transfer the pollen it got from the one flower to another. And that bee doesn’t even really know that they’re there.”

Some like it hot (’n smelly)

Skunk cabbage: “It grows in wetland-type habitats and its flowers start to emerge even when there’s often snow on the ground. It can generate heat from its flowers: It has a certain metabolic pathway that actually leads to some heat production. So when it starts to flower and this is happening and, say, it snows a little bit, it’s enough to melt the snow around the flower. [With their smell] they’re very often trying to attract flies that think they’re going to be laying eggs on a pile of rotting meat, or whatever—they’re really just pollenating the flowers.”

On the way to steal your girl

Figs: “The fig allows a female [fig wasp] that’s carrying pollen to enter the structure when it’s immature. It goes around, deposits eggs in lots of the flowers that are inside, and also pollenates some of the flowers that are inside. It dies; her larvae hatch; they emerge; they get mated or they never leave; and the females that come out leave the fig to do the same thing over again.

If you dissected a ripe fig and you looked carefully enough, you could probably find the bodies.”

All’s fair…

Milkweed: “There are these pollen structures, called pollinia, that are in this flower and they’re attached in a way that an insect has to free it, and occasionally, insects, like certain bees or smaller insects, get stuck. Their legs get stuck in this stuff or in the structure and they can’t get loose, like a trap. And so you’ll often go to the flower and find a dead bee or a dead moth stuck there that was collecting nectar or pollen from these flowers and got stuck and died and couldn’t make it.”

For those more interested in the big-picture lesson, Cipollini offers one take-away: “Give plants another look and you’ll be fascinated by what they can do.”

And maybe think twice before eating that Fig Newton.

For more information on Wright State University Department of Biological Sciences, please visit

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Reach DCP Editor Amanda Dee at

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