Monday, December 18, 2006

Eternal nuptials

posted by Chet at 11:32 AM UTC

One of the advantages of hanging out in a good college library is that I get to possess, albeit briefly, an abundance of expensive books I could not afford to buy. I recently finished one such book, Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, a magnificent coffee-table collaboration between a professional botanist at Kew Gardens, Madeline Harley, and an artist photographer, Rob Kesseler. A visually exhilarating survey of the sex lives of flowering plants -- colorful, luscious, moist with nectar and dew.

It was the great 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who formalized the theory of sexual reproduction in flowers. Apparently, it came as something of a shock to some of his contemporaries that plants "did it."

Early in the next century the aged poet/botanist Johann Goethe welcomed a new (and ultimately unsuccessful) theory purporting to show that plant reproduction had nothing to do with sex. He wrote: "For the instruction of young persons and ladies this new pollination theory will be extremely welcome and suitable. In the past the teacher of botany has been placed in a most embarrassing position, and when innocent young souls took text book in hand to advance their studies in private, they were unable to conceal their outraged moral feelings. Eternal nuptials going on and on, with the monogamy basic to our morals, laws, and religion disintegrating into loose concupiscence -- these must remain forever intolerable to the pure-minded."

Goethe's outrage sounds eerily similar to the sanctimonious objections of our own religious fundamentalists to any form of human sex beyond monogamous coupling within the "sanctity" of heterosexual marriage. Kudos to Harley and Kesseler for so lovingly illustrating the beauty and diversity of plant sexulaity.