When Nature Makes Mistakes
Spring plants flowering in autumn; dragonflies laying their eggs on the tarmac of an asphalt road (which on account of its reflected polarized light they mistake for a freshwater stream); bulls used for breeding and artificial insemination ejaculating into a tube held by a collector inside a dummy model cow that the sex-starved bull mounts; the greedy toad consuming a Ramphotyphlops braminus “blind snake” that after having survived the passage through the toad’s digestive system wriggles out of the toad’s anus alive; the false or so-called “pseudo-pregnancies” relatively common in feral and wild dogs: are they (and many others like them) not examples of the fact that mistakes abound in Nature and Nature isn’t perfect? I suppose not to be 100% perfect is the difference to “cold” mathematics and, thus, the charm of Nature (and perhaps of some of our loving partners, too).
But what about plants that usually flower in spring, but suddenly produce some blossoms in autumn or winter? I’ve seen that as a child with plums and other trees and yet again here in South Korea with plants that were in full bloom during spring, but now in late autumn or early winter sport an isolated and lonely flower on their branches. Insects that could pollinate such flowers are mostly no longer present and it would be too late for a fruit to ripen let alone develop. What goes on and how can Nature allow this to happen; something which must be a waste in view of the plant’s survival strategy for winter. Actually, many plants that flower in early spring, and this includes plum and apple trees, already form their buds during the preceding summer. When the next spring arrives, the buds open. It’s the period between the formation of the buds and when they open, which is the key to understand why mistakes occur. It seems that weather conditions are erroneously interpreted by plants that allow their buds to open prematurely in autumn so that they can have a ‘head start’.
Winter dormancy for the vast majority of plants represents a period of stress: short days with little sunshine, reduced precipitation and then often only in the form a snow, low temperatures and low humidity. Under such conditions, it is best for plants to ‘slow down’ and get ready for better times to come. For some very ‘impatient’ plants such seemingly better times appear to have come when after a short spell of very dry and cold nights, perhaps in combination with a period of dry weather before the cold spell, suddenly temperatures rise again for a few days, the sun shines and moisture enters the soil. It gives these most impatient plants the signal to “go for it” and quickly open their flowers before the competition gets ready. However, it’s a stark mistake and the only beneficiary may be some of the few late-flying and cold-hardy insects still around. But why are there a few insects at all?
The reason is not the presence of the occasional autumn flower of a species that would normally erupt in inflorescences during spring; it is because there is a small number of plant species that always and naturally produce their flowers in autumn or early winter. Some of the plants that flower in late autumn, mid winter or early spring include the Mahonia tree, snowdrops and bluebells as well as some pansies, Hellebore and Grevillea species. For them the advantage is that they can have the very few pollinators still (or already) around, such as bumble bees, some moths and certain flies, to themselves. It’s similar to one take-away shop still open at night when all the others are already closed. The few customers still around at night will all shop at those very few places that are still open at that time. Are plants with wrong flowers in autumn then bad ‘thinkers’? Well, “errare humanum est” (-not only, it seems).
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