Sex in the woods: The delicate question of reproduction in rattlesnake-plantain

Goodyera_oblongifolia_webSome native plant species are so interesting that it’s not possible to capture everything about them in a single post. Goodyera oblongifolia, also known as rattlesnake-plantain or large-leaved rattlesnake orchid, is one of those species.

Although there are many aspects of Goodyera, this post will focus on how this gorgeous little orchid reproduces itself.

First thing to know is that orchids have some very interesting reproductive strategies. Some strategies are specific to climatic conditions. So, for example, some orchids in cool northern temperate climates have opted out of the whole cross-pollination thing and opted in for self-fertilization (e.g. Corallorhiza).

In one study (Reproductive biology of Goodyera oblongifolia, Ackerman, 1975), researchers looked at whether rattlesnake-plantain had opted for self-fertliization.

They found that it did not. Goodyera oblongifolia flowers are known to be visited by at least three species of bumblebees, which are attracted to the nectar on the lip of the orchid flower.

Apparently, only bumblebees are able to pollinate the flowers of Goodyera oblongifolia because only they are able to access the nectar source – beyond the reach of smaller, short-tongued bees.

Goodyera_oblongifolia_flowers_webOnce pollinated, the rattlesnake-plantain flowers produce capsules that can contain around 500 seeds. (Those seeds are then dispersed by the wind.)

Ackerman suggested that the way that rattlesnake-plantain tends to grow in clonal populations creates little islands of flowers that may attract pollinators, i.e. clustering the flowers together increases the odor strength and the visual stimulus.

(Scientists believe that one of the reasons that some northern temperate orchid species opt for self-fertilization is the potential scarcity of pollinators in a cooler climate.)

In conducting his research, Ackerman also found something else interesting about Goodyera oblongifolia: plants that flowered produced more vegetative growth than plants that didn’t flower (1.74 new growths for flowering plants vs. 0.46 for those not flowering).

It’s a brilliant strategy. After rattlesnake-plantain has flowered, the plant dies. But, before that plant withers to its end, the new growths that it produced can establish as new independent plants.

So flowering produces an advantage whether the flowers are pollinated or not. In the best of circumstances, the flowers are pollinated, seed gets set and dispersed, and vegetative growths occur that grow into new plants. At worst, some new clonal plants grow from a dying unpollinated plant.

Wow. Not bad for a “simple” plant, hmm?