Here is my latest for the column, on a flower I came across in the Kanapaha Botanical Garden in Gainesville, FL. The piece got quite a bit shorter between writing and publishing, so I’m including a longer version below.
From the vantage point of my privileged 21st century life, filled with plentiful food and easily acquired medicine, I think back to the lives of our earliest human ancestors with terror and awe. How did they figure out what they could and couldn’t eat, what would hurt and what would heal? Walking through a cornfield today, it’s easy to see that corn is meant to be eaten. But thousands of years ago, corn didn’t grow in neat rows or bear such inviting kernels. Ancestral maize seeds were tiny, brown, and hard, borne on plants that look, to the untrained eye, like any other grass. But our forefathers still recognized these plants as sources of nutrition. Or take coffee. How long, how bitter was the process of figuring out that coffee berries must be washed, cleaned, dried, roasted, ground, and brewed with boiling water before yielding a liquid that some still find unpalatable?
When it comes to medicinal plants, the risks and rewards of trial-and-error are magnified. In a quite literal embodiment of the cliché that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, many plant extracts that in small quantities can save our lives, will, in larger quantities, cause our demise. But when I came across the Glory Lily in a botanical garden a few days ago, the thought that this plant could help or harm me didn’t even cross my mind. I stopped to look at it only because of its pretty flowers.
Glory lilies have been used by people across the world to cure all manner of ills, from haemorrhoids to head-lice. But its usefulness is tied to its deadliness—many of the uses that humans found for glory lilies involved killing something, be they parasitic worms or other people. This plant’s potency, serving medicinal or murderous ends, lies in the chemical colchicine. Colchicine interferes with important proteins, called tubulins, that make up our cells’ equivalents of bones and arteries.
The glory lily probably produces colchicine for protection, to dissuade animals, all of whose cells contain tubulins, from eating it. But a glory lily doesn’t benefit from scaring away all animals. In fact, its showy flowers exist solely to attract certain animals, which will transfer its pollen to other glory lily flowers and allow the plants to reproduce. And we can tell from its flowers that attracting pollinators is crucial to the glory lily. The combination of the flowers’ downward facing male parts (the anthers covered in yellow pollen) and a sharp upward turn in its female parts (the green style tube ending in three stigmas) make it near-impossible for pollen to fall from a flower’s anthers onto its own stigmas, preventing it from fertilizing itself (see the picture below for the clearest view). Glory lilies thus depend on outside assistance to reproduce, and the flowers’ gorgeous colours and form must play a role in enticing animals to help.
Some neuroscientists think that similarities in our brains might explain why flowers are attractive to birds, bees, and me. Perhaps our brains see beauty in the contrast of the glory lily flowers’ colours against a green background, perhaps from its symmetry. If I had lived five thousand years ago, I doubt my brain could have deduced if the glory lily would kill or cure me, but I hope that it would still have found these fiery flowers beautiful.
[The piece is based on the following:
- Selvarasu, A. and Kandhasamy, R. 2012. Reproductive biology of Gloriosa superba. Open Access Journal of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants 3: 5-11
- Maroyi, A. and van der Maesen, L.J.G.. 2011. Gloriosa superba L. (family Colchicaceae): remedy or poison? Journal of Medicinal Plants Research 5: 6112-6121.
- Kavithamani, D., Umadevi. M. and Geetha, S. 2013. A review on Gloriosa superba as a medicinal plant. Indian Journal of Research in Pharmacy and Biotechnology 1: 554-557
- Lindstrom, E.W. 1926. An unusual adaptation for cross-pollination. Journal of Heredity 17: 233-234
Also, the ideas on perceptions of beauty across animals that are briefly alluded to at the end of the piece come from V.S. Ramachandran’s work on the subject.]