As I waded through the flowers, it struck me—the material and the method, the process, the pollen—I was being used, a sex surrogate, to advance the bawdy games of neighbors. I was the delivery and the voyeur. I was intercourse.
Most of us know that plants reproduce via a process called pollination, but this alone is a euphemism—a bit like a child’s definition of sex as parents snuggling. It’s a respectable nibble on the elbows of botany, but leaves more out than it dares mention. Beyond the capabilities of human sight—under the covers, if you will—is hidden a fair bit of chatting. Whether you’re a stoic or a talker, a little encouragement (and let’s be honest, a little guidance) can go a long way in enticing a new partner. Plants are obliging partners, but a stigma will never engage the same pollen grain twice, even when they are genetically identical. In other words, for plants, every time is the first time.
For the more sentimental lover, look to the giant waterlily, largest of all water lilies. The massive white flowers perched atop the water open at sunset, inviting the nocturnal scarab beetle—her surrogate lover—to feast on the blossom’s sugary appendages and rest in a warm luxurious bedding of petals. Furthermore, Victoria (the giant waterlily’s latin name) has an extravagant hidden talent: a process called thermogenesis, by which she can warm herself up to twenty degrees above ambient temperatures. The added amenity strengthens the cast of the lily’s seductive smell and actually saves the beetle energy. A gracious partner, this pollinator takes the opportunity to extend the one night stand. When morning comes, the night-blooming flower closes, tightly wrapping the beetle inside. Enjoying the heat that it no longer has to provide itself, the beetle lounges through night and day inside the lily’s lush and seedy setting. At sunset when the flower reopens, its color will be pink, blushing from the long tryst. Shortly thereafter, the visitor too will emerge, with cigarette in hand, to move on and repeat the process. The spent flower will close the following morning, expectantly fertilized, never to reopen again. Composed like a Grimm fairy tale, these stories are never-ending, and, when they’re written, the annals of plantly debauchery will mercilessly shame even the most purple of romantic endeavors.
Unequivocal masters of sex, plants perform in celebration of clever specializations, of time-honored relationships and with surrealist efficacy. Players bold and demure hold us captive to their stage, teaching us that beyond their fruits lie whispers, warmth, scents and flowers—countless sweet nothings.
Interview has been edited and condensed, originally appearing in Wilder Quarterly.