The Spitting Plant*

Look familiar? If yes, see my note at the end. But because this story goes to (radio) air this week I need to match my blog to the airwaves. At least that's my story.

So, the story goes a little like this... Because plants tend to do things slowly (like grow), botanists get excited when they react quickly – e.g. trigger plants, the release of fern spores, carnivorous plant traps and so on.

One of curiosities of the plant world is the spitting flowers of Anneslea fragrans. Anneslea fragrans is not uncommon in the mountains of southern China through to Thailand, but you won’t see it in many gardens in Australia.

I first discovered this plant in the garden of Bob and Derelie Cherry, at a place they call Paradise. Bob is an enthusiastic plant collector who has visited China many times, particularly seeking rare and interesting camellias. Anneslea is in the tea family, Theaceae, of which Camellia is the largest and most well know member

Bob showed me how to trigger the flower, and make it spit. You can see on the website picture the resulting pollen ‘spittle’ on Bob’s finger! Today we’ll try to get the same deposit on Simon (although one should never do live radio with kids or flowers).

The young flower is very elegant, with petals tightly clasped together, forming something like a Russian church spire. The swollen part of the spire has slits in it to allow the perfume (it’s not called ‘fragrans’ for nothing) to escape, attracting pollinating insects such bees.

The bee, or Bob or Simon’s finger, hovers around the fragrant bloom. If the tip of the spire – a protruding ‘style’ I think – is knocked in any way, a blob of pollen fires out the nozzle. The shocked and now pollen-coated bee moves swiftly to a new bloom. This time it may be an older flower, fully opened and receptive to the smear of pollen that will be left on its style.

That seems to be the way it works. We have a three metre high specimen growing in the Oriental Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was planted nine years ago, and is offspring from the plant growing at Paradise. That much bigger specimen was collected in 1989, from the Yunnan Provence of China. There is another offspring of this plant growing at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden.

Image: Anneslea pollen in Bob Cherry’s finger at Paradise Nursery, which I think is one of the Open Gardens on show this weekend around Sydney...

*This Passion for Plants posting will also appear on the ABC Sydney website (under 'Weekends' or search 'gardening'), and is the gist of my 702AM radio interview with Simon Marnie on Saturday morning, between 9-10 am. I've also blogged on this topic a little before, with the same image, so apologies for the duplication...