The Self-Taught Gardener: Flowers and fruits

I have been shocked by how little gardeners often know about the structure of plants and flowers. A visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History has made me look at plants in a new manner.

There comes a moment in August when gardening enters an interesting phase. Dedicated gardeners may be sowing biennials that will bloom the following year, and vegetable gardeners may be sowing late-season crops of green beans, lettuces, spinach, and Japanese greens, but generally it is a moment when many of us take a break from the larger tasks of gardening and take it all in.

Perhaps the week I spent on Nantucket has me thinking this way more than usual, as I was away from the daily tasks of my own property. I am in a mode of looking and observing, despite some weeding that needs to be done wherever I look. And a visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History has made me look at plants in a new manner. The recently reopened Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants Flower Collection, created more than a century ago as teaching aids for the botany department, is a pairing of the artistry of man and nature. Delicate glass specimens draw us into the intricate world of plants. These models have glass filaments that appear as fragile as the botanical filaments and anthers of a passion flower.

In the past year, as I have been giving lectures on seed saving since the publication of The Seed Garden, I have been shocked by how little gardeners often know about the structure of plants and flowers, let alone the reproductive process of flowering plants, or angiosperms. And while it is true that such knowledge is often not essential for ornamental gardeners, as most plants can produce flowers and fruit with minimal, if any, intervention, an understanding of these processes is at the center of being a better gardener, or at least a more appreciative one. After all, the plants in our garden work hard and are given very little credit for all that they do, as we complain about the energy we put into their care.

The current temporary exhibition at the museum (the reworking of the exhibit allows them to show pieces that were not often on display in the past) focuses on the collection’s pollination series, created to give viewers insight into the many ways that flowers are fertilized and go on to produce fruits and seeds. The exhibit takes us from admiring the artistry of the glasswork to giving us a deeper understanding of the sex life of flowering plants.

Runner beans are tripped by bumblebees whose vibrations allow the pollen to come in contact with the flower’s pistil, which begins the fertilization and fruit production process. The mature fruits or pods of this bean contain the seeds that we collect for eating or replanting. Photo: Lee Buttala
Runner beans are tripped by bumblebees whose vibrations allow the pollen to come in contact with the flower’s pistil, which begins the fertilization and fruit production process. The mature fruits or pods of this bean contain the seeds that we collect for eating or replanting. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

In one model, a bumblebee is shown on a runner bean tripping pollination. The very nature of this large bee landing on a runner bean flower and buzzing causes the pollen on the stamens of the flower to come in contact with the pistil of the flower, allowing fertilization to occur and the fruit (in this case an edible bean pod) to begin to develop. For those growing runner beans, an understanding of the role of the pollinator may not be essential, but if there is a dearth of bumblebees, there may be a dearth of beans. (In some cases, gardeners trip the pollination of the flowers themselves when pollinators are not present.)

Passionflowers develop their fruits after bees carry the pollen on their bodies from flower to flower, pollinating flowers as they gather their own sustenance. Photo: Lee Buttala
Passionflowers develop their fruits after bees carry the pollen on their bodies from flower to flower, pollinating flowers as they gather their own sustenance. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

A series of passionflower models takes us through another pollination process showing a bee carrying pollen from one flower to another as part of the fertilization process. The series continues through the stages of the flower’s withering as the ovary develops into a mature fruit. (Yes, the fruits of plants are mature ovaries, a thought that is disturbing to a few squeamish novice seed savers, especially any that happen to be vegan.) No book on botany could make the process easier to comprehend, let alone demonstrate it so elegantly and exquisitely.

I half wonder if these models were developed as a response to the prurient nature of the Victorians regarding the sex life of plants. It is often said that the Victorians favored ferns because their flowerless sexual reproductive process was so much less graphic than that of the “reckless rose or the tumultuous tulip.” Perhaps rendering the process in glass felt safer than observing the flowers themselves (Whatever the case, we should be grateful for their creation, as they capture the moments we so rarely observe in our own gardens as we go about our quotidian chores.)

This replica of Nigella or love-in-a-mist has me looking at the specimens in my own garden with a renewed sense of the artistry of nature. Photo: Lee Buttala
This replica of Nigella or love-in-a-mist has me looking at the specimens in my own garden with a renewed sense of the artistry of nature. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

As I looked about the darkened room with backlit cases filled with glass replicas of bananas and Solomon seals, composites and lilies, I realized that this exhibit provided me with something that I had overlooked on so many days in my own garden, a sense of the wonder and artistry of nature and man that is at the center of gardening. As I caught my breath at the delicacy of the ripened fruit of a love-in-the-mist, delicately rendered in glass so thin that it felt like a breath could break it, I became determined to make the drive home and to look about me with the same sense of awe.

Solomon's Seal.... rendered in glass more than a century ago. Photo: Lee Buttala
Solomon’s Seal…. rendered in glass more than a century ago. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

Perhaps I will even go this weekend to the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Grow Show and examine the flower and fruit submissions with the same sense of wonder for these living specimens that I have for their glass counterparts. For more information on this exhibition, visit berkshirebotanical.org. For information on the glass flower collection at Harvard, go to huh.harvard.edu/glass-flowers.

The flowers and fruit of a banana take us through the reproductive processes of flowering plants. Photo: Lee Buttala
The flowers and fruit of a banana take us through the reproductive processes of flowering plants. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.