Next time someone tries to tell you that queer and trans folks have taken our identities too far, give them a botany lesson. Plants are SO queer, y’all.
Before we get into all the very exciting sexualities that plants have, let’s talk about their sexy parts. If you’ve ever taken a 6th grade science class, you’ve probably learned about the “male” and “female” parts of plants. Since we’ve all come to recognize that there’s nothing inherently “male” about sperm or “female” about eggs, it’s about time for a vocab rehab. I’m excited about all the trans and queer plant-lovers out there who are rethinking ways that we can talk about and learn from plants. Today, I’m going to talk about “stamens” and “pistils,” and I can’t wait to see what we come up with in the future.
With that in mind, let’s hop in the Magic School Bus and learn all about plants’ bits.
In plants, we usually call sperm “pollen.” That’s right allergy sufferers: sperm is the cause of all your springtime snot. The part of the plant that produces pollen is called the stamen. Stamens consist of two parts: the filament and the anther. The anther is covered in pollen and the filament is the thin strand that supports the anther.
Plants have eggs that, when fertilized, mature into seeds. The part of the plants that produces seeds is called the pistil. Pistils are made up of the stigma, style, ovary, and egg. In humans, ovaries produce eggs while uteruses incubate fertilized eggs that grow into fetuses. In plants, the ovary both produces the egg and is the enclosure where seeds grow. The stigma is the sticky landing pad where pollen collects. The style is the tube that connects the stigma and ovary. When pollen lands on the stigma, it grows a tail through the style so that it can deposit its genetic material in the egg.
The plant world has a gorgeously diverse combination of pistils and stamens. The names can get really long, but if you divide the parts up by their etymological roots, you’ll know what’s going on. To make it easier to read, I’m going to put dashes into long words.
Flowers can be either bi-sexual or uni-sexual.
- Bisexual flowers have both stamens and pistils. Bisexual flowers are also called perfect — let’s hear it for the perfect bisexuals — mono-clinous (monos = one, cline = bed), andro-gynous, herm-aphrodite or syno-ecious (syn = together, ecious = house). Famous bisexuals include Lily (Aldrin) and Rose(a Diaz).
- Unisexual flowers have only stamens or only pistils. These flowers are also called imperfect, di-clinous (di = two, cline = bed), or incomplete. Watermelons are unisexual.
A species can have bisexual flowers, unisexual flowers, or both! We group them depending on whether these flowers live together on one plant or separately on different plants.
The zucchini flowers facing up are staminate and the flowers facing down are pistillate.
Monoecious (monos = one, oikos = house) species have some flowers with only stamens or some flowers with only pistils, but all the flowers live on the same plant. Corn and zucchini are both monoecious.
- Flowers with only pistils are called pistillate.
- Flowers with only stamens are called staminate.
- Some plants have both bisexual and unisexual flowers on the same plant.
- Gyno-mono-ecious plants have pistillate flowers and bisexual flowers, but not staminate flowers.
- Andro-mono-ecious plants have staminate flowers and bisexual flowers, but not pistillate flowers.
- Poly-gamo-mono-ecious plants (also called andro-gyno-mono-ecious, poly-gamous, tri-mono-ecious plants) have staminate flowers, pistillate flowers, AND bisexual flowers all on the same plant.
Some plants fall somewhere between monoecious and dioecious. They’re called subdioecious or polygamodioecious.
- A sub-gyno-ecious plant has mostly pistillate flowers, but some staminate or bisexual flowers on one plant.
- A sub-andro-ecious has mostly staminate flowers, but some pistillate or bisexual flowers on one plant.
A staminate pistachio tree
A pistillate pistachio tree
Dioecious (di – two, oikos = house) species have flowers with stamens on separate plants from flowers with pistils. Holly and pistacho are dioecious, which is why you only get berries and nuts when you have a pollen-producing and an egg-producing plant near each other.
- A gyno-ecious plant has only pistillate flowers.
- An andro-ecious plant has only staminate flowers.
- Some species have both bisexual and unisexual flowers, but on different plants.
- A gyno-dio-ecious plant has pistillate flowers on one plant, bisexual flowers on another plant, and no staminate flowers. Wild beets are gynodioecious.
- An andro-dio-ecious plant has staminate flowers on one plant, bisexual flowers on another plant, and no pistillate flowers. Japanese ash is androdioecious.
- A tri-oecious plant has bisexual, pistillate, and staminate flowers on different plants.
Plants have one more trick up their sleeves. They can change from pollen-producing to seed-producing over time in a process called dichogamy (dikho = apart, gamy = marriage).
- Proto-gynous plants produce eggs first before producing pollen. In pearl millet and avocados, the pistil matures first.
- Prot-androus plants produce pollen first before producing seeds. In corn and many members of the carrot family, the stamen matures first.