Flowers: Sex, Hermaphrodites and transsexuals. A natural story on sexual diversity.

Sexual diversity has been a controversial and hot topic since there is a record of human history.

Traditionally, western cultures have only acknowledged the binary division of sex into males and females. Anything that deviates itself from this binary conception has been considered to be unnatural or ungodly. However, nature and biology tell us that reality is nothing close to this binary paradigm. The natural world surrounding us is full of cases of animals, plants, and even parasites that break this dichotomy of sex. Plants, in particular, make the easiest case to prove how natural changing sex and non-binarity are. You just need to take a magnifying glass and go to your yard to explore the massive sexual diversity in these beautiful reproductive organs we call flowers. When we talk about flowers, we are undoubtedly talking about sex, specifically about reproductive organs. No wonder we feel touched when someone gives us flowers, after all, they are giving us reproductive parts as gifts. Who wouldn't be pleased after receiving such a gift?



Plants are Hermaphrodites


Almost 90% of flowering plants are hermaphrodites meaning that they have both male and female reproductive structures. This means that the same individual flower can fertilize other plants. At the same time, that same individual can also be fertilized and bear fruit. To understand a little more about plant hermaphrodites, let us look a little bit into flower anatomy.

The following terms may be a little bit hard to remember. It is still easy to identify the pollen-producing parts of a flower (Male parts) and the fruit-bearing parts of a flower (the female parts).

So once you finish reading this article, you will be able to identify flower parts even if you don't remember the names correctly.

The male part of a flower is called the Stamen, where the pollen is produced. The female part of the flower is called the carpel, where the stigma and the style are visible in plain sight. Most often in hermaphrodite plants, the stamens are located below the carpel, to avoid self-pollination. The stigma, which is the upper part of the "female" flower, is usually shaped differently from the pollen-producing parts and is really easy to spot. Here are some few examples:


The Fuchsia flower (Fuchsia magellanica) is a great flower to start learning about reproductive parts. You can see the carpel (1) rising far above the pollen bearing stamen (4). Photo credit


A beautiful example of a passionflower. (Passiflora amesthystina). You can see the 4 yellow pollen bearing stamen almost making a cross. Above them, you see the green carpel waiting for some pollen.


A Gesner's tulip (Tulipa gesneriana) is a very clear example too. Can you guess which parts are the male parts and which are the female? Hint: What is rising above everything else and is also light yellow? Photo credit


After seeing this flowers you are one step closer to becoming becoming a plan sex master! (haha)

As you go along on your next walk around the park, look at the flowers around you. You will realize most of them are hermaphrodites, meaning you cannot really classify them as only being male or being female. Both classifications are incomplete. Our daily lives surround us with proof that a binary sex classification is not a rule in nature. If anything, diversity in reproductive strategies is the rule towards organismal survival and success!

Plants are transsexual


So, we said around 90% of flowering plants are hermaphrodites. What about the remaining 10%? Well, there is a wide array of remaining reproductive strategies. According to an article published by the scientific Magazine Nature , around 5% of these are dioicous plants, meaning that female and male flowers occur in different individuals. Yet, never-ending to surprise us botanists, it turns out that many of these dioicous plants can actually change sex. It is an entirely natural process, a response to time or physical stimuli.



As you are probably aware by now, it is very energy-consuming to carry a child for 9 months, feed him inside of your body, and give birth. Just as having babies is a very energy-consuming process for human females, it is very energy-consuming for flowers too. An article from the magazine Oecologia showed that plants that can change sex from female to male are better adapted to survive in harsh environments since male flowers spend less energy than female flowers that have to fruit. Common wheat is a familiar example of a plant that changes sex. Female flowers change to male flowers when the soil is dry, and water is scarce. Only when water is sufficient again will more flowers start to become female again. It turns out that plants that can change their sex are better adapted to survive in harsh conditions, making sex change an evolutionary advantage for flowers.


What can sexual diversity in flowers teach us about sexual diversity in humans?


Many countries still do not have laws protecting sexually diverse humans. Some countries even actively prosecute those who deviate from the binary standards of classifying sex. The latter is a bit contradictory when we look into the national emblems of countries. Most countries choose a national tree and a national flower to represent their culture and values. And guess what? It turns out many of these national trees and flowers, symbols of patriotism and pride, are hermaphrodites and sex-changing plants. Let us look at some great examples:


  • The rose, national flower of the United States, is a hermaphrodite flower.

  • The wax palm (Ceroxylon quindense)-the national tree of Colombia, can change its sex You can read the article on palm sex change here.

  • Maple trees! Canada's national tree has been found to change sex when damaged or sick!

  • The Chinese national tree, the royal Gingko biloba tree, is a tree capable of changing the sex of its flowers-read more about it here

  • Nigeria's, national tree is the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora)-Hermaphrodite as well!

And the list can go on and on. If you actually have the time to look through all national trees and flowers, you will end up realizing most of these plants are either hermaphrodites or can change sex. In fact, several countries that criminalize sex change have plants that can change their sex as national symbols.

A national symbol is something a country exposes with honor and pride. If we are so proud of the sexual diversity of the trees and plants that we choose as national symbols, why can't we be proud of our people who decide to change sex or that happen to not identify themselves with either male or female? If we truly are as proud of gingkos and roses to have them as national emblems, we have to be proud of all they represent, including their sexual nature. Thus, just as we are proud that the national flower is a hermaphrodite and the national tree changes its sex, we should start being proud of the humans who, just as our plant peers, do not fall strictly into a binary category.

Looking closer at plants and flowers can teach us several lessons about respect, tolerance and how nature works. Accepting people who do not identify with a binary classification or who decide to change sex is as natural as accepting a rose or a camphor tree. Next time you feel like you don't understand someone who chooses to live their sexuality in a non-binary way, just look at nature and look for a flower in your yard. It will make you remember life on earth does not necessarily go by binary standards. You just need some creativity and a magnifying glass to realize the human conception of gender is as fleeting as a flower in bloom.

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Santiago R. Said-M.Sc. Environmental Biologist