Friday, October 09, 2009

A Different Bird in Paradise?

The photo above is supposed to be Impatiens psittacina, also called the Parrot Flower, at least on the Internet. It is, allegedly, a rare, endangered species, native to northern Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and northern India. Apparently it is a Federal crime in those countries to attempt to export either the flower or the seeds. Wondering if anyone has actually seen one of these beauties in person?

According to numerous sources, which are apparently quoting from an unnamed original source, "The Impatiens are part of a morphologically diverse family, called Balsaminaceae, which has about a thousand representatives that are mainly distributed in the tropics and subtropics. The family Balsaminaceae consists of only two Genera: Hydrocera and Impatiens."

Impatiens is by far the largest and inhabits all continents except South America and Australia. Hydrocera has only one species confined to tropical Asia. One of the features that separates Impatiens from the rest of the plant kingdom is the explosive nature of the seeds. Through a process knows as 'explosive dehiscence,' the ripe seed pods explode under extreme pressure when disturbed, scattering the seeds far and wide, sometimes more than twenty feet from the parent plant.

The flower shapes of impatiens come in many different forms, and all have the ability to change sex. When an impatiens flower first opens it is male and after a few days this pollen cap is shed to reveal the female organs underneath. This evolutionary safety net is to keep the plant from self-pollination but it doesn't always work. Some species naturally set seed without even opening their flowers; this is called being cleistogamous. Some of the species have even gone one step further in that it is self-sterile and needs another of the same species in order to set seed.

Self-pollination, it seems, can weaken the species. After a combination of checking with this handy site and the ever helpful Google, I found one poster who found this:

"Evolutionary biologists and population ecologists view this mixed breeding system as a highly successful strategy for producing genetically diverse new plants from chasmogamous flowers and other new plants very similar to the parental genotypes from cleistogamous flowers. The mixed breeding system is found in many distantly related plant families and has recently been proposed as a vehicle for containment of transgenic modifications in plant groups where it could be induced. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying this fascinating system have never been investigated."

Wow---and I thought I had just found a pretty picture! Nature is amazing---a flower that can change its sex, shoot its seeds out into the world like a canon shot and trys to protect itself from self-pollination with trickery that sometimes backfires. Sounds a lot like humans!

But is the flower above real? Does it actually exist in the world...or just in a clever person's photo manipulation? This person sure does go to a great deal of trouble to convince his readers that the flower, as seen above, is real. In 1901, Botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker wrote an entry for Kew Gardens about Impatiens psittacina, and it was accompanied by a drawing shown at the bottom of the linked page. If you look at the drawing and then the closeup of one section of the drawing...hmmmm.

Are you convinced? I'm skeptical, but I have a friend who has a friend who knows a botanist from Down Under....Help!


Ann Somerville said...

I'd be surprised if it's a hoax - J. D. Hooker was a scientist of impeccable reputation. Moreover, that flower looks very like this:

So, I think it's real, if very rare. Very lovely too!

T.T. Thomas said...

Right, evidently no one questions J.D. Hooker's credentials---it's the photograph that's come under some fire, i.e. has it been airbrushed, Photoshopped, etc. But I think it does look very much like the original drawing that accompanied Hooker's piece, and not unlike the ones on your Wikepedia link. Who knew Impatiens had so many looks!

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