The Most Beautiful Floral Show
Phil Rushton—The plants the Everglades are presented with some of the most challenging a-biotic problems of any system that I have ever encountered. The problems arise mainly from the fact that both seasonal cycles and elevation change lead to drastic differences in the amount of freestanding water. This means that within just a small area there can be drastic changes in the species makeup and the adaptations derived to deal with the unique problems that each species has evolved for their niche. The limiting factor then for many of these species is the amount of suitable substrate, given that very rarely is there a closed canopy limiting the production of these plants. This forms an incredibly competitive system where disturbances and the ability to colonize rules the landscape. In my mind no other group of species epitomizes this more than the epiphytic plants that grow on other host plants. These plants cannot exist without other species that allow them to remain above the forest floors, either in the form of vines or small clusters such as the Bromeliads known as air plants.
With all this running through my mind from having been here several days, I was fortunate to see one of the most beautiful floral shows that I have ever seen.
The story begins rather unimpressively with a walk to check out the local marina—a walk down an old path that runs parallel to Flamingo Bay and an abandoned resort, left after a hurricane had caused severe water damage. Like most biologists I rarely look at the world without asking questions about the life around me, and one species in particular had struck me as odd from the first time I saw it. It seemed to span across the entire field outside of this resort blocking at all but the most resilient of plants, by simply smothering them its massive system of vines that seemed to entangle all life, even itself.
As I walked I began to notice that all the plants had small inflorescences that shot out with a single bud on each end but none of them were blooming, although they seemed to be bursting with small specks of a white petal, as if the plant would bloom at any moment provided you weren’t watching. I remember saying to myself that this must just be the result of the upcoming wet season, which affects many of the plant cycles in this and many other areas where winter is not necessarily a matter of mere temperature to its human interpreters. I shrugged and thought nothing more of it because I knew without a suitable bloom I would probably have an aneurysm trying to identify even with the best keys.
The other students and I made it to the marina, where we quickly discovered the nectar of beer that we had so longed for over the last few days, as if Dionysus had disguised himself as a middle aged Hispanic man simply to see the expression on the faces of some of his most faithful Wallies. We sat out on the wall of the marina drinking our beers and discussing all the things that we had never known or bothered to know about each other.†
It soon came time for dinner so we left the marina and returned to the camp, where Dr. Krohne was grilling steaks. After dinner, Bart and I had decided that the current supply of beer would never last us through the thirsty night (particularly since a water main break had made the water in the campground unfit for drinking), so we decided to make one last quick trip to the marina before the lecture on the coral reefs of southern Florida. With darkness setting in we were walking along the path admiring the stars and the moon that was painting a soft light on everything around us when suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a sea of white emerged just as we approached the old abandoned resort. This was the plant I was so puzzled by earlier, here in full bloom at night!
Now I had heard of flowers blooming of night, but I had never imagined it to be a sea of flowers like the one before us. Realizing we were probably holding up the lecture at this point, we decided it was best to make it back as quick as possible, but not without first grabbing a flower and a few leaves in order to discover more about this mysterious sea of flowers covering the landscape.
Upon returning we narrated our story to the other students and showed our prize to Dr. Krohne who spent a few seconds examining the flower then looking at us only to say, “So then what pollinates it?” Bart and I exchanged a few glances and then through out a few of the hypotheses that we had discussed while walking to the marina only to be promptly shot down and for good reason, the hypotheses were crap.
Then more like a guess than the gift of inspiration, I suggested that perhaps it was a moth of some kind, which was the answer that Dr. Krohne had been seeking. The key he said was understanding the specific adaptations this flower had gone to ensure that moths, most likely one specific species of moth, were the only pollinator capable of reaching the nectary buried deep within the stalk with their long proboscis. Just like the famous quote of Charles Darwin, who had found a flower such as this and from it he said that a moth exists with a proboscis long enough to reach this very deep nectary; several decades later they discovered the moth that he had hypothesized.
We quickly broke out the field guides in order to learn more. The flower was known as the Moonflower for obvious reason, and although I had earlier thought to myself that this was likely some kind of invasive species due to the nature of the highly disturbed habitat which we had found it and its dominance in this area, it turned out that it was native to Florida.
The field guide described it as a species that thrives in the wake of disturbance, such as the hurricane that had ended the resort. So with a small Swiss army knife we slowly dismembered the flower, making a smooth slice down the stalk to reveal a thin white style that lead from this strange flower down to a gynoecium. I tried my best to get a look at the gynoecium, but with the crude blade I was unable to get anything useful and eventually had to scrap the mutilated flower.
From that time on it seemed that moonflower showed up in the strangest places, covering roadsides and old trees in even the most pristine places such as Corkscrew sanctuary and I always found myself wishing I could see them again like it had been that night.
In photos: moonflower still blooming at sunrise at Flamingo in Florida Bay; Phil Rushton.