Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/May 1883/From Buttercups to Monk's-Hood


By Professor GRANT ALLEN.

TO look at these queer, irregular blue flowers, growing on a long and handsome spike in the old-fashioned garden border, nobody would ever dream of saying that they were in reality altered and modified buttercups. And yet that is just what they really are, with all the marks of their curious pedigree still clearly impressed upon their very form. Pull one of the blue blossoms off, and pick it carefully to pieces, and you will see how strangely and profoundly it has been distorted by insect selection. Monk's-hood is most essentially a bee-flower, and in examining it we see the results of bee action plainly set forth in every organ. If we pick a common meadow buttercup for comparison with it, we shall be able to see exactly wherein the two flowers differ, as well as why the one has gained an advantage in the struggle for existence over the other.

The outside whorl of the buttercup consists, of course, of five separate greenish sepals, which together make up its calyx. Inside the sepals come the five golden petals composing the cup-shaped corolla; and inside the petals, again, come the numerous stamens, and the equally numerous carpels or unripe fruits, each containing a single solitary little seed. Moreover, all these parts are regularly and symmetrically arranged round a common center, so as to form a series of concentric whorls. But when we look at the monk's-hood we see no such simple and orderly arrangement in its architectural plan. At first sight, we recognize no distinct sepals or petals: and the colored organs that take their place are very irregular in shape, and disposed in an unsymmetrical fashion—or rather, to speak more correctly, their symmetry is not radial, but bilateral. When we begin to pull our blue blossom to pieces, however, we gradually recognize the various parts of which it is composed. First of all come five sepals, not greenish as in the buttercup, but bright blue; and not all alike, but specially modified to fulfill their separate functions. The uppermost sepal of all is helmet-shaped, and it forms the curious cowl which gained the plant its suggestive name from our mediæval ancestors. The two side sepals, to right and left, are flatter and straighter, but very broad, while the two lowest of all are comparatively small and narrow. The whole five are bright blue in color. Pull off these petal-like sepals, and you come to the real petals beneath them. At first you can hardly find them at all; you see only two long blue horns, covered till now by the helmet-shaped upper sepal or cowl, and each with a queer cup-like sac at its extremity, containing a small drop of clear fluid. That fluid is honey, but I should advise you to be careful in tasting it not to bite off any of the flower, for monk's-hood is the plant from which we get the now famous poison, aconitine; and a very little of it goes a long way. Unlike as they are to the familiar yellow petals of the buttercup, one can still gather from their position that the two long horns are really petals. But where are the three others? Well, you must look rather close to find them, and perhaps even then you won't succeed after all; for sometimes the three lower petals have disappeared altogether, being suppressed by the plant as of no further use to it. In this particular specimen, however, they still survive as mere relics or rudiments, three little narrow blue blades, not nearly as big as a gnat's wing, placed alternately to the lower sepals. As for the stamens, they are still present about as numerously as in the buttercup; whereas the carpels, or fruit-pieces, are reduced to three only, which in the ripe seed-vessels here on the lower and older part of the spike grow into long pods or follicles, each containing several seeds.

Thus, then, the flower of monk's-hood agrees fundamentally with the flower of the buttercup; while, at the same time, it has undergone some very singular and suggestive modifications. In both there are five sepals; but in the buttercup all five are alike, and all five are greenish; whereas in the monk's-hood they have acquired different shapes, exactly fitting them to the bee's body, and they have become blue, because blue is the favorite color of bees. Again, in both there are five petals; but in the buttercup all five are similar and yellow, and all five secrete a drop of honey at the base; whereas in the monk's-hood two of them have become long and narrow specialized nectaries, while the other three, being no longer needed, have grown obsolete or nearly so. Once more, the stamens remain the same; but the carpels have been immensely reduced in number, at the same time that the complement of seeds in each has been greatly increased by way of compensation.

Well, how are we to account for these peculiar modifications? Entirely by the action of the fertilizing bees. The secret of the monk's-hood depends, in the first place, upon the fact that its flowers are clustered into a spike, instead of growing in solitary isolation at the end of the stem, as in the common buttercups. Now, Mr. Herbert Spencer has pointed out that solitary terminal flowers are always radially symmetrical, and never one-sided, because the conditions are the same all round, and the visiting insects can light upon them equally from every side. But flowers which grow sideways from a spike are very apt to become bilaterally symmetrical; indeed, whenever they are not so, one can always give an easy explanation of their deviation from the rule. Probably the blossoms of the monk's-hood began by arranging themselves in a long and handsome spike, so as more readily to attract the eyes of insects; and that was the real starting-point of all their subsequent modifications. Or, to put the same thing more literally, those monk's-hoods which happened to grow spike-wise succeeded best in attracting the bees, and therefore were most often fertilized in the proper manner. Next, we may suppose, the large green sepals, being much exposed to view, began to acquire a bluish tinge, as all the upper parts of highly developed plants are apt to do; and the bluer they became, the more conspicuous they looked, and therefore the better they got on in competition with their neighbors, especially since bees are particularly fond of blue. As each bee would necessarily light on the middle or lower portion of the flower, he would begin by extracting the honey from the two upper petals; but it would be rather awkward for him to turn round head downward, and suck the nectaries of the three bottom ones. Hence, in course of time, especially after the flower began to acquire its present shape, the two top petals became specialized as nectaries, while the three lower ones gradually atrophied, since the colored sepals had practically usurped their attractive function. But as the flower can only succeed by being fertilized, all these changes must have been really subordinate to the great change which was simultaneously going on in the mechanism for insuring fertilization. Slowly the blossoms altered to the bilateral shape—they adapted themselves by the bee's unconscious selection to the insect's form. The uppermost sepal grew into the hood, so arranged that the bee must get under it in order to reach the long nectaries containing their copious store of honey. At the same time the bee must brush against the stamens, and cover his breast with a stock of adhesive pollen-grains. When he flies away to the next flower he carries the pollen with him and, as he rifles the nectaries in the second blossom, he both deposits pollen from the last plant upon the sensitive surface of the carpels in this, and also collects a fresh lot of pollen to fertilize whatever other flower he may next favor with a call. The increased certainty of fertilization thus obtained enables the plant to dispense with some of the extra carpels which its buttercup ancestors once possessed; and, by lessening the number to three, it manages to get the whole set impregnated at a single visit. But, as three seeds would be a small number to depend upon in a world of overstocked markets and adverse chances, it makes up for the diminution of its carpels by largely increasing the stock of seeds in each.

Thus the whole shape and arrangement of the monk's-hood bear distinct reference to the habits and tastes of the fertilizing bees. It is a mountain plant by origin, belonging to a tribe which took its rise among the great central chains of Europe and Asia, and these Alpine races are usually highly developed in adaptation to insect fertilization, because they depend more absolutely upon a few upland species than do the eclectic flowers of the plains, which may be impregnated haphazard by a dozen different flies, or moths, or beetles. We can still dimly trace many of the links which connect it with very simple and primitive buttercups, if not directly, at least by the analogy of other plants. For all the buttercup tribe show us regular gradations in the same direction. The simplest kinds are round, yellow, and many-carpeled, like the buttercups. Then those species which display their sepals largely have dwarfed petals, like hellebore and globe-flower, or have lost them altogether, like marsh-marigold, which trusts entirely for color display to its big golden calyx. The still higher anemones have the sepals white, red, or blue; and the very advanced columbine has all the petals spurred, and developed into nectaries, like those of monk's-hood. But columbine still keeps to single terminal flowers, so that here the five petals remain regular and circularly symmetrical, though the carpels are reduced to five. Fancy a number of such columbine-flowers crowded together on a spike, however, and you can readily picture to yourself by rough analogy the origin of monk's-hood. The sepals would now become the most conspicuous part; the two upper petals would alone be useful in insuring fertilization, and the lower ones would soon shrivel away from pure disuse. The development of the hood and the lengthening of the upper petals would easily follow by insect selection. It is a significant fact that our only other spiked buttercup, the larkspur, has equally irregular and bilateral flowers, though its honey is concealed in a long spur formed by the petals, and accessible to but one English insect, the humble-bee.—Knowledge.