Some floral forms make you wonder if they know something we don’t. Take Calceolaria uniflora for example.
When photographed at just the right angle, these slipper-shaped blooms look like the face of an alien wearing beats headphones and holding an empty white tray as a peace offering. Calceolaria is native to the southernmost portion of South America in Tierra del Fuego whose rocky alpine terrain could also be confused with an inhospitable planet in another solar system.
If it isn’t an orange alien, what exactly are we looking at? The stalk-like eyes are the stamens, which contain the pollen-producing anthers at the end. The petals of the flower are asymmetrical such that there is a large lower lip and a much smaller upper portion. The green sepals are even larger than the upper part of the petals giving the illusion of halo or headset. The lower lip of the slipper contains a prominent folded appendage in white, a striking contrast from the other features.
The purpose for this elaborate costume isn’t mimicry, it’s attraction. But they are phoning home for E.T., they’re setting the table for birds. Birds are a part of many plants’ reproductive strategies and it’s usually in the form of oil and nectar producing floral structures that entice hummingbirds and other small birds over for a drink. Even other Calceolaria species produce nectar for their bee pollinators, but not C. uniflora. In this case, the white tray and larger lower lip of the flower are edible. Birds eat the tray and slipper portion of the flower while the upper portion dusts the top of their heads with pollen. As the birds move from flower to flower, pollen is transferred as well.
There are many other examples of plants using edible portions of themselves in their reproductive strategy. Seed dispersal by the animals that eat them is the whole point of fruit. However, the case of C. uniflora, where the plant offers up part of itself as a meal before seed production seems out-of-this-world risky to me.
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