Botanical Record-Breakers (Part 2 of 2)

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Botanical Record-Breakers (Part 2 of 2)
Amazing Trivia About Plants
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© W.P. Armstrong (Updated 26 January 2014)

12. The World's Largest Flying Seed

Whirling Nut (Gyrocarpus)
Flying through the air is another effective adaptation for fruit and seed dispersal by plants. Airborne seeds and fruits have several ingenious methods of flying through the air, including whirling like a helicopter, gliding, and floating like miniature parachutes with tufts of fine hairs. Of all the types of "helicopter fruits," those of Gyrocarpus are the most remarkable.  [Refresh Page If Whirling Nut Doesn't Start Spinning.]

Spinning fruits from Thailand: A. Diptocarpus alatus (Diptocarpaceae). B. Diptocarpus obtusifolius. C. Gluta (Melanorrhoea) usitata (Anacardiaceae). The latter species is also called the Burmese lacquer tree and is well-known as a source of lacquer. The resin is chemically similar to the Japanese lacquer tree. Like the Japanese lacquer tree and poison oak, the resin canals also contain urushiol, a mixture of toxic phenolic compounds that cause a cell-mediated immune response in some people. Identifications courtesy of Dr. Tomiki Sando, Thailand.

The climbing gourd (Alsomitra macrocarpa), native to the Sunda Islands of the Malay Archipelago, produces one of the largest winged seeds up to 5.5 inches (14 cm) wide inside a large, club-shaped gourd. The football-sized gourds hang from a vine high in the forest canopy, each packed with hundreds of winged seeds.

Alsomitra is one of the most unusual members of the diverse gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). The seeds have two papery wing membranes and become airborne like a glider when released from the fruit. This large, streamlined seed reportedly inspired the wing design of some early aircraft, gliders and kites. Although the seeds vary in shape, some of the most symmetrical ones superficially resemble the shape of the "flying wing" aircraft or a modern Stealth Bomber.

The remarkable winged seed of the tropical Asian climbing gourd Alsomitra macrocarpa. The entire seed has a wingspan of 5.5 inches (14 cm) and is capable of gliding through the air of the rain forest in wide circles. This seed reportedly inspired the design of early aircraft and gliders.

Seed courtesy of The Cucurbit Network P.O. Box 560483, Miami, Florida 33256 USA

Since this remarkable glider (shaped like a stealth bomber) is a single seed produced inside a large, many-seeded fruit, it undoubtedly has the record of largest flying seed!

Any discussion of large airborne seeds and fruits would not be complete without mentioning the quipo tree (Cavanillesia platanifolia), a massive rain forest tree in the bombax family (Bombacaeae) native to Panama. The enormous winged fruits of the quipo tree flutter through the air, carpeting the ground beneath the huge canopy of this striking tropical tree. Although it is large, this seed-bearing structure is the actual fruit, and not an individual seed as in Alsomitra.

Quipo tree (Cavanillesia platanifolia):  A remarkable rain forest tree in the bombax
family (Bombacaceae) with huge winged fruits. This massive tree is native to Panama.

The Diverse Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae
The Wind Dispersal of Seeds & Fruits

13. The Longest Distance Traveled By A Drift Seed

Imagine floating helplessly in the open sea, thousands of miles from land, your destination at the mercy of the wind and currents. Eventually you might drift ashore on the beach of a tropical island or distant continent. This scenario is precisely what happens to countless drift seeds and fruits, a remarkable flotilla of flowering plants that travel the oceans of the world. The world's record for the longest distance traveled is difficult to determine. Some widespread drift seeds, such as sea beans (Mucuna) and sea hearts (Entada) have probably floated longer distances in the sea; however, most of these drift seeds have pantropical distributions and their precise point of origin cannot be determined. In addition to long ocean voyages, the sea heart (Entada gigas) also produced the longest bean pod of any member of the legume family (Fabaceae).

But there is one drift seed with a very limited point of origin called the "Mary's bean" (Merremia discoidesperma). Named after the Virgin Mary, it is also called the crucifixion bean because of a distinctive cross etched on one side. The unique seeds are produced by a tropical liana of the morning-glory family (Convolvulaceae) that is only known from relatively few locations in the rain forests of southern Mexico and Central America. As an ocean drift seed, the Mary's been is known from Wotho Atoll in the Marshall Islands to the beaches of Norway, a total distance of more than 15,000 miles. According to the world authority on drift seeds, Charles R. Gunn (World Guide To Tropical Drift Seeds and Fruits, 1976), this is the widest documented drift range for any seed or fruit.

Left: The Mary's bean (Merremia discoidesperma) is certainly one of the most elusive and interesting of all drift seeds in fact and fiction. A thick, woody seed coat and internal air cavities enable this remarkable seed to drift for years at sea, from Central America to beaches of Norway.

Right: The Mary's bean (Merremia discoidesperma) is held in place inside its papery capsule by a black strap. The connecting strap produces a groove across one side of the seed that intersects with another indentation, thus forming the distinctive imprint of a cross.

A Mary's bean vine (Merremia discoidesperma) showing the papery capsules and fuzzy black seeds with a faint cross etched on one side. Each capsule contains one fuzzy Mary's bean than eventually gets worn smooth. Although this vine has only been found in a few locations of Mexico and Central America, its distinctive seeds are known from beaches of the Marshall Islands to Norway, a distance of more than 15,000 miles.

A rather expensive Mary's bean necklace imported to San Diego from Brazil. The origin of the seed is unknown. It could have originated in Central America and was carried to Brazil, or possibly it was collected as a drift seed.

A. Pods and seeds of Mucuna (cf. M. sloanei) from the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. One seed has an attachment stalk (funiculus) that encircles the seed along its hilum. B. Pod and seeds of Mucuna near Golfito on the humid Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The pods are covered with dense, stinging hairs. These may be the same species. Sea beans such as these may have a longer dispersal distance than the Mary's bean, but they are so widely distributed that it is difficult to be certain about their precise point of origin.

See: The Fabulous Mary's Bean
Bat Pollinated Sea Beans (Mucuna)
Sea Heart: World's Longest Bean Pod
Sea Voyagers: Ocean Drift Seeds & Fruits

14. The World's Fastest Reproducing Plants

Wolffia plants also have the fastest population growth rate of any seed plant. Under ideal conditions a single plant of the Indian species Wolffia microscopica may reproduce vegetatively by budding every 30 hours. One minute plant could theoretically give rise to one nonillion plants (one followed by 30 zeros) in about four months, with a spherical volume roughly equivalent to the size of the earth. Some plants produce astronomical numbers of seeds and spores in a single season. The fuzzy brown spike of a common cattail Typha latifolia may contain a million tiny seeds, each with a tuft of hairs that carries them into the wind like a miniature parachute. The seeds can travel high into the atmosphere and may cross entire mountain ranges before settling down in a distant march. Some tropical orchids may produce more than a million seeds per flower, thus increasing the odds of their tiny airborne progeny finding another suitable substrate high in the rain forest canopy where sunlight is available. To help in the dispersal process, the parasitic pine mistletoe Arceuthobium can forcibly eject its seeds. The small fruits of this truly amazing plant literally fire their tiny, sticky seeds 50 feet (15 m) into the air at a remarkable speed of 55 miles per hour. They can easily be felt as they strike tender parts of your body. Starting with one basketball-sized puffball fungus (Calvatea gigantea), the total number of spores produced in just two generations could theoretically produce a volume of puffballs roughly seven times the size of the earth. [Note: Bacteria are the fastest dividing cells in the world. It has been estimated that if one bacterium divided every 20 minutes and all the offspring lived and reproduced at the same rate, in one month the bacterial colony would weigh more than the visible universe and would be expanding outwardly at the speed of light. This astronomical number of bacteria (one followed by 650 zeros) far exceeds the number of electrons in some models of the universe. [Of course, you must remember that this fantastic projected number of bacteria is preposterous.]

Left: Dorsal view of six Wolffia species: 1. W. microscopica (India); 2. W. globosa; 3. W. columbiana; 4. W. brasiliensis; 5. W. borealis; 6. W. arrhiza (Germany). [Species 2 through 6 are all known to occur in the state of California, USA.]

Right: A flowering (Wolffia microscopica) next to the tip of a sewing needle. The unusual "golf tee" shape is unique among all wolffia species. A small male organ (stamen) can be seen protruding from the upper (expanded) side of the plant body.

Population Growth For Biology Students
Population Growth Of Wolffia By Budding
See: The World's Smallest Flowering Plant

15. The World's Fastest Growing Plants

The record for the fastest growth of an individual goes to a tropical species of bamboo that reportedly reaches 100 feet (30 m) in three months. [Note: This is an unsubstantiated report. It might be only 50 feet (15 m) in three months.] Growth increments of three feet (0.9 m) a day have been recorded--an astonishing 0.0002 miles per hour. The record for total growth in length after a period of time may go to a species of marine algae. The Pacific giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) may grow up to 150 feet (46 m) or more in length, and has been clocked at 18 inches a day. It has also been estimated that if all the filamentous hyphae produced in one day by a single massive soil fungus permeating acres of forest soil were laid end to end, they could extend for nearly a mile.

Bamboos typically form dense, impenetrable clumps or spread by creeping rhizomes. Clumping bamboos are mostly native to tropical contries, such as Indonesia, Burma, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Thailand and southern China. A few "mountain bamboos" from the Himalayas and the Andes are "temperate clumpers" that can survive in areas with freezing winters. Running bamboos are mostly from temperate climates of Japan, northern China, Siberia and one native species in the United States. Bamboos range in size from low, shrubby forms only ten feet (3 m) tall to towering giants over 100 feet (30 m). Aerial stems (called culms) develop from scaly, underground stems called rhizomes that bear roots at the nodes where the leaflike scales are attached.

Along with palms, bamboos are one of the world's most important building materials, particularly in areas where timber trees are in short supply. Large timber bamboos, including Dendrocalamus giganteus and Bambusa oldhamii are used for scaffolding, bridge-building, water pipes, storage vessels and to build houses. In fact, as a building material bamboo plays an important role in almost every country in which it occurs. In Burma and Bangladesh, about fifty percent of the houses are made almost entirely of bamboo. In Java, woven bamboo mats and screens are commonly used in timber house frames. With modern polymer glues and bonding cements, bamboos are made into plywood, matboard and laminated beams.

Left: Giant timber bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus), one of the largest species of bamboo. One of the tallest individuals ever recorded was 137 feet! Right: Running bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax), a fast-growing species that spreads by horizontal, multi-culmed rhizomes.

Some bamboo species bloom simultaneously and then die, a phenomenon that is still under investigation by plant physiologists. These species produce seed once in their life cycle and are termed monocarpic. Like other biological phenomena, there are exceptions to this worldwide mortality. In fact, most species of bamboo are not monocarpic. Some bamboos observed in cultivation are greatly weakened or die back following the blooming cycle, but actually recover in a few years and may even live to bloom again. With an average human life cycle of perhaps eighty years, few mortal botanists have ever followed the life cycle of a particular bamboo plant from germination to flowering! Variations in the exact flowering period for a given species have also been observed in cultivated bamboos. When cultivated bamboo species bloom precisely at the same time, they are very likely clones from an original rhizome that has been propagated vegetatively. Depending on the species, the unusual delayed blooming cycle may occur only once in a century. Even more astonishing is the fact that over huge geographic areas all the bamboo of a single species may flower and fruit at the same time, resulting in enormous grain (seed) production and widespread die-offs. When this massive die-off was observed in a panda preserve in 1983 the panda inhabitants faced starvation, while pandas on different mountains (with different bamboo species) had sufficient food. The Chinese launched a campaign to relocate about ten percent of the pandas in zoos; however, their failure to reproduce well in captivity further exacerbated the decline in panda populations. The birth of Hua Mei at the San Diego Zoo in the 1999 using artificial insemination was indeed a triumph for the panda breeding program.

A spikelet of yellow-groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata). Each spikelet consists of 3 to 6 florets. Several stamens and a feathery stigma are protruding from the upper pair of fertile florets.

A single fertile floret (flower) of yellow-groove bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata). Each floret is contained within two bracts called the lemma and palea. The two fertile florets occur in a spikelet composed of 3-6 florets subtended by a pair of glumes. Grasses are typically wind-pollinated and have no need for showy petals like other flowering plants.

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the ecological advantage of producing seed-bearing fruit only once in a life cycle (monocarpic) and with a long time interval between germination and death of up to 120 years. As I stated above, this phenomemon does not apply to the majority of bamboo species. One of the most plausible explanations involves a clever strategy to avoid annual seed predation by rodents, such as rats. Rodents are very fond of bamboo grains and if the seed predators were in tune with bamboo flowering and fruiting, they could easily destroy the bulk of the seed crop each year. With massive fruiting only once or twice in a century, the bamboos avoid tracking by vertebrates whose generation time is much shorter than the flowering cycle. With abundant food, the rodent population could increase substantially during the year following the bamboo flowering cycle; but for the next 30 to 60 years (or more), the rodent population would decrease and stabilize again while the bamboo populations regenerate. This strategy to avoid seed predation, and the extensive cultivation of fertile valleys between mountainous regions, has seriously threatened the panda populations in southern China.

Bamboo: Remarkable Giant Grasses
Photos Of Major Algae Divisions
Imbibition: The Power Of Plants

Like Other Grasses, Bamboos Contain Silica Bodies Called Phytoliths

The earliest fossils of flowering plants date back approximately 130 million years, to a time when dinosaurs walked the earth. Exactly which ancestral seed plants gave rise to the flowering plants has been a hotly debated topic for more than a century. In fact, in a letter to Joseph Hooker in 1879, Charles Darwin referred to the sudden appearance of flowering plants in the fossil record as "an abominable mystery." Grasses are considered relatively advanced flowering plants, and most macrofossils and pollen from grasses appear long after the demise of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period (65 million years ago). Dioramas in museums have long depicted large sauropod dinosaurs grazing on conifers, cycads and ferns in landscapes without grasses. In Science (Volume 18, 2005), Caroline Strömberg of the Swedish Museum of Natural History and her Indian colleagues Vandana Prasad, Habib Alimohammadian and Ashok Sahni reported phytoliths from grasses in the fossilized dung of sauropods that lived in central India about 65 to 71 million years ago.

Petrified dung (coprolite) from a large dinosaur that roamed the vast plains of eastern Utah during the Jurassic Period, about 160 million years ago. Although it appears like one large "cow pie" 22 cm across, it may represent the amalgamation of several pellets that merged together in a fluid matrix. The animal that made this was probably larger than any present-day herbivore. It might have been excreted from one of the large sauropods that inhabited this region.

Phytoliths are microscopic silica bodies found inside the cells of stems and leaves of grasses and other plants. Depending on the species of plant, they range from 5 to 100 micrometers in length. Because they are made of a crystalline form of silica called opal, they are very durable and retain their characteristic shapes over millions of years. Like microscopic pollen grains and diatoms, the phytoliths remain perfectly preserved in spaces between soil particles. Different genera of grasses have phytoliths with unique shapes, including square, rectangular, oblong, bilobed, wavy with undulate margins, and butterfly-shaped. Grasses belonging to the subfamily Panicoideae typically have phytoliths that are shaped like a dumb-bell. I examined the leaf blade of crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis), a member of the Panicoideae, and the phytoliths are indeed shaped like a dumb-bell.

Magnified view of a row of phytoliths within the leaf epidermis of crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis). The dumb-bell shaped phytoliths are 32 micrometers in length. Compare this with an average cuboidal grain of table salt in which each side is 300 micrometers long. More than 800 of these crabgrass phytoliths could fit into a box the size of a grain of table salt! Photo taken at 400x and 1000x magnifications with a light microscope.

Magnified phytolith from the leaf costa of crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis). Photo taken at 1000x magnification under oil immersion. The dumb-bell shape is characteristic of the subfamily Panicoideae.

Magnified view of phytoliths within the costa (vein) of an unknown lawn grass. The phytoliths are rectangular with undulated margins, each about 28-32 micrometers long. They are approximately the shape of phytoliths in the subfamily Pooideae. In fact, the grass may be a species of Poa (bluegrass). Photo taken at 400x magnification with a light microscope.

Illustration of a phytolith within the costa (vein) of an unknown lawn grass. The phytolith has the shape of a slender rectangular block with undulations along the top and bottom sides. It is approximately 30 micrometers in length along the bottom side. It was drawn from a photo image taken at 1000x magnification with a light microscope.

It is remarkable how much information has been determined about the distant geologic past with new and improved methods of chemical analysis and sophisticated digital instruments. Each day the scientific theory of evolution is becoming more complete, as scientists uncover new facts and piece them together like a complex jigsaw puzzle. DNA, the genetic blueprint of all creatures, provides a stunning, detailed record of evolution, from primitive unicellular bacteria to complex vertebrate animals.

  Phytoliths & Dinosaur Coprolites  
Grains of Salt & Metric System
A Comparison Of Cell Sizes

16. World's Fastest Trapdoor On A Plant

Any discussion of amazing plants must include the specialized carnivorous plants that trap and digest small insects and other creatures. Carnivorous plants may be subdivided into 2 major groups; those with passive traps and those with active traps. For some of these traps the actual method of insect decomposition involves digestive enzymes produced by the plant and bacterial decay within the trap. A classic passive trap is the "pitfall trap" of pitcher plants (Darlingtonia and Sarracenia), where an insect falls into a vase-like modified leaf. Downward-pointing hairs on the slippery walls prevent the insect from crawling out, and the hapless victim ultimately drowns in a pool of digestive enzymes at the bottom. Other well-known passive traps are the "flypaper" or adhesive traps of sundews (Drosera) and butterworts (Pinguicula). In both of these unrelated genera, the leaves are covered with sticky, gland-tipped hairs (Drosera) or a sticky (viscid) layer of mucilage (Pinguicula) which entangle the hopeless, struggling victim.

In active traps, a rapid plant movement takes place as an integral part of the trapping process. Probably the best known active trap is the Venus' flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), one of the most astonishing plants in the world. When triggered by an insect, the leaf blade folds closed along its midrib bringing the two halves together. Three bristle-like hairs near the middle of the upper side of the leaf blade are sensitive to touch and cause the blade to snap shut. Touching one hair will not trigger the closing mechanism. Only when one hair is touched twice or two hairs are touched in succession will the leaf blade fold closed. This strategy generally prevents an inanimate object (such as a pebble or small stick) from activating the trap. A fringe of stiff hairs around the edge of the blade become interlocked (intermeshed) when the blade folds closed, thus trapping the insect like bars in a jail cell. The action of this remarkable mechanism involves a rapid loss of turgor pressure within the leaf cells on the upper side of the leaf. Digestive enzymes from glands on the leaf surface break down the proteins of the imprisoned victim, and the plant gets a supplemental source of nitrogen.

The only carnivorous plant with a true "trapdoor" is the remarkable bladderwort (Utricularia). This little submersed aquatic plant has one of nature's most precise and delicate traps, and certainly the most rapid. Thousands of minute bladders are attached to feathery submersed branchlets by tiny stalks. Some authorities consider these finely divided branchlets to be modified leaves. The flattened, pear-shaped bladders range in diameter from 2 millimeters (the size of a pinhead) to about 4 millimeters (the size of a BB). At one end is an opening and a flap of tissue which forms the door. The door hangs down from the top of the entrance like a garage door, except it opens inward. Support tissue and a mucilage coating around the door frame helps to seal the door and prevent water from entering the bladder. The door opening is surrounded by several bristly hairs that resemble the antennae of a tiny crustacean or insect. Numerous, tiny glands inside the bladder absorb most of the internal water and expel it on the outside. As a result, a partial vacuum is produced inside the bladder and the pressure on the outside becomes greater than inside. This causes the walls to squeeze inward and explains their slightly concave appearance.


Left: A microscopic, underwater view of the slender branchlets of a bladderwort plant (Utricularia vulgaris) bearing tiny, pear-shaped bladders. Note the bristly hairs at the entrance to the bladder traps (red arrow). Right: Magnified view of a single bladder trap containing a trapped copepod (red arrow), a minute crustacean related to a shrimp. The tail, legs, and antennae of the copepod are clearly visible. The entire bladder is about 2 mm across, slightly larger than the head of an ordinary straight pin.

The airtight door of a bladderwort trap is hinged to allow easy entry as it swings inwardly; but like a door that opens inwardly, it cannot be pushed open from the inside. Special trigger hairs near the lower free edge of the door cause it to open. When a minute aquatic organism touches or hits one of these extremely sensitive hairs, the hair acts as a lever, multiplying the force of impact and bending or distorting the very pliable door. This breaks the watertight seal and, since the bladder contains a partial vacuum, the hapless victim is sucked in. The whole trapping process occurs within 15 to 20 milliseconds (about 1/60 of a second), roughly the speed of a daylight camera shutter setting. when the bladder trap is filled with water, the door cannot be forced open from within. Bladder extracts from some species of bladderworts indicate that enzymes secreted by the plant may be involved in the digestion process.

See Wayne's Word Article About Carnivorous Plants
 Remarkable Trap-Jaw Ant: Fastest Moving Appendage! 

17. The World's Deadliest Seeds & Microbes

A student once asked: "What is the most deadly plant in the world?" This question has many answers depending on who you are, your method of contact with the plant, and the laws of probability. If you happen to be a small insect, then a Venus fly-trap or a related carnivorous plant might be your most dangerous (and last) botanical encounter. With the exception of certain pathogenic bacteria, the most insidious plant toxins affecting people are lectins, extremely poisonous proteins including ricin from the seeds of castor bean (Ricinus communis) and abrin from the seeds of rosary bean (Abrus precatorius). Of course, their degree of toxicity depends on how they are administered. It has been estimated that gram for gram, ricin is 6,000 times more poisonous than cyanide and 12,000 times more poisonous than rattlesnake venom. A dose of ricin weighing only two millionths of an ounce (roughly equivalent to the weight of a single grain of table salt from a salt shaker) is enough to kill a 160 pound person.

Left: Castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) showing large, tropical, palmately-lobed leaf and cluster of spiny red fruits. On some plants the fruits are green. Right: The many "faces" of castor bean seeds. Like the faces and fingerprints of people, the beautiful designs on the seeds exhibit infinite genetic variation. The small structure on the end of each seed is a caruncle. The seeds superficially resemble the bodies of ticks, particularly ticks engorged with blood.

Ricin from castor beans is a potent cytotoxic protein that is lethal to eukaryotic cells by inactivating the vital organelle sites of protein synthesis called ribosomes. Just one single ricin molecule that enters the cytosol of a cell (the semifluid medium between the nucleus and plasma membrane) can inactivate over 1,500 ribosomes per minute and kill the cell. One of the two protein subunits of ricin (RTA) is a deadly enzyme that removes purines (such as adenine) from ribosomal RNA, thus altering its molecular structure and function. Without protein synthesis at the ribosomes, a cell cannot maintain itself and soon dies.

See Ribosomes In An Animal Cell

In 1978, a Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was assassinated in London after being pricked by a ricin-tipped umbrella. Ricin causes a slow and painful death through blood poisoning and a breakdown of the circulatory system. There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning. Even before the tragic terrorist plane crashes into the Trade Center Twin Towers in New York, some airports hand-inspected umbrellas packed in carry-on luggage. From: Facts on File News Services (23 Jan. 1998).

Following the Gulf War, UN investigator teams (UNSCOM) discovered that Iraq was purifying ricin for possible use in biological warfare, along with anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), botulism toxin (Clostridium botulinum), gas gangrene (C. perfringens), and aflatoxin (Aspergillus parasiticus). From: Facts on File News Services (13 Feb. 1998).

According to the Merck Index: An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals, one thoroughly masticated seed of rosary bean (Abrus precatorius) can cause fatal poisoning. Brightly colored rosary beans are commonly strung for seed jewelry in Mexico and Central America. Sometimes the seeds are boiled in order to facilitate the piercing of their hard seed coats, and this heating would undoubtedly denature the toxic proteinaceous lectins inside. Of course, the undisputed record for the deadliest natural toxin goes to the anaerobic bacterium of spoiled food (Clostridium botulinum). A fascinating article on botulism appeared in Scientific American, April, 1968. So deadly is the toxin (even deadlier than strychnine, arsenic and snake venoms), that an amount equal to the weight of ink in a printed period in a textbook is enough to kill 30 adult humans. One ounce could theoretically kill 30 million tons of living matter and one pound could kill the entire human population. However, even an innocuous coconut can be a lethal weapon if you stand under a heavily laden palm. The odds of this unfortunate event is considerably greater than winning the jackpot in the California State Lottery. [In fact, the chance of being struck by lightning is actually greater than winning the California Lottery.]

Pod and striking seeds of rosary bean (Abrus precatorius), one of the most beautiful and deadliest seeds on earth. They are often made into bracelets and earrings in Central America. In the movie "Blue Lagoon," Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins supposedly ate the seeds of Abrus precatorius in order to commit suicide.

See Article About The Castor Bean Shrub
See Article About Seeds Used For Jewelry
Plant Alkaloids That Can Make You Loco
Photos Of Some Alkaloid Producing Plants
Medical Alkaloids, Glycosides & Terpenes

The Undisputed Deadliest Toxins Are From Microbes

The undisputed record for the deadliest natural toxin goes to the anaerobic bacterium of spoiled food (Clostridium botulinum). A fascinating article on botulism appeared in Scientific American, April, 1968. So deadly is the toxin (even deadlier than strychnine, arsenic and snake venoms), that an amount equal to the weight of ink in a printed period in a textbook is enough to kill 30 adult humans. One ounce could theoretically kill 30 million tons of living matter and one pound could kill the entire human population. However, even an innocuous coconut can be a lethal weapon if you stand under a heavily laden palm. The odds of this unfortunate event is considerably greater than winning the jackpot in the California State Lottery. [In fact, the chance of being struck by lightning is actually greater than winning the California Lottery.]

Aflatoxin: A Deadly Carcinogen Found In Peanuts


Moldy peanut seed pod infected with Aspergillus.

The fascinating book Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History Of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food by Jon Krampner (2012) discusses aflatoxins in chapter 15. These are toxic phenolic compounds from the mold Aspergillus flavus that grows on peanut shells, especially peanuts stored in damp silos. The shell is actually the wall or pericarp of the mature seed pod (legume) of a peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea). The toxins get into peanut seeds if the shells are cracked, and during the peanut meal process. Aflatoxins are known to cause liver cancer in laboratory animals and they may contribute to liver cancer in Africa where peanuts are a dietary staple.

Aflatoxins technically belong to a group of phenolic coumarins called difuranocoumarins, and are among the most potent carcinogens in humans. There are several aflatoxin isomers, but B1 is apparently the most dangerous in products consumed by people. Peanuts aren't the only affected crops. Aflatoxins have been found in pecans, pistachios and walnuts, as well as milk, grain, soybeans and spices. The common molds that produce aflatoxins (A. flavus and A. parasiticus) have a worldwide distribution. There are about 200 species of Aspergillus, including molds in houses and aspergillosis, serious bronchopulmonary diseases of people. On a positive note, some species of Aspergillus are economically valuable. A. oryzae is used to make soy sauce by fermenting soybeans with the fungus. It is also used in the fermentation of rice to make sake. A Japanese food paste called "miso" is made by fermenting soybeans, salt and rice with the same mold. Miso is used in a number of Japanese dishes, including miso soup. According to K.R. Stern (Plant Biology, Fifth Edition, 1991), more than one-half million tons of miso are consumed annually.

A Species Of Aspergillus Cultured On Bakery Bread At Wayne's Word (30 December 2012)

A. The ubiquitous mold (Aspergillus niger) growing on a slice of bread. The dark brown mass is composed of numerous globose structures called conidial heads. The heads are composed of radiating strings of spores (conidia) produced by mitosis from special elongate cells called sterigmata. Each head produces hundreds of minute conidia and in a few days the bread is blackened by literally thousands of heads and millions of spores. The conidia readily become airborne and are released into the atmosphere. The dense, fuzzy mycelium covering the bread (basal felt) is white-yellow. The conidial heads readily distinguish this species from the black sporangia of Rhizopus nigricans, another common species of black bread mold. In Rhizopus, the spores are contained within a globose, thin-walled sporangium that breaks open at maturity to release the spores.

B. Magnified view of conidial heads in area outlined in red. Image taken through a dissecting microscope with Sony W-300 camera (40x magnification). The largest heads are about 400 to 500 micrometers (0.4 to 0.5 mm) in diameter. The heads appear roughened by radiating stringlike chains of conidia, another characteristic separating this mold from Rhizopus. These chains of conidia are readily broken in prepared slides and are difficult to show intact under high magnification with a compound microscope. The yellowish background is the the basal felt (mycelium) on surface of bread.

C. View of conidial head removed from the yellowish basal felt and placed in a drop of water on microscope slide with cover slip. It was photographed with a Sony W-300 through a compound microscope (500x magnification) . Most of the chains of conidia have separated from the head during the preparation of the slide. The conidia are 3.5 to 5.0 micrometers in diameter.

The genus Aspergillus belongs to the fungal division Ascomycota. Members of this division have a unique sexual cycle in which nonmotile ascospores are produced within a saclike structure called an ascus. Complete sexual cycles with ascospores have not been found in all Aspergillus species. For this reason, they were once placed in the artificial fungal division Deuteromycota. DNA analysis has shown that they belong to the monophyletic division Ascomycota and all trace back to a common ancestor.

See Wayne's Word Table Of Relative Cell Sizes
See Index Of Fungi Pages & Images On Wayne's Word
  See Index Of Fungi & Algae Life Cycles On Wayne's Word  

What Are The Odds Of Getting Cancer From Aflatoxins In Peanut Butter?

The following paragraph is summarized from Chapter 15 in Jon Krampner's book, either from cited reference material or interviews he has conducted with authorities. Although the Food and Drug Administration has established stringent regulations at 20 parts per billion (ppb), it is practically impossible to completely eliminate aflatoxins from peanut butter. Depending on the growing season and mold in the fields, the popular supermarket brands (including Peter Pan, Skippy and Jif) with high quality control and "intense risk-management strategies" typically have minimal levels of less than 4 ppb. Aflatoxin levels in so-called "natural" peanut butters depend on their quality control. For example, Smuckers Natural and Laura Scudder's, are made by Smuckers, the makers of Jif. Natural peanut butter that is ground on-site in health food stores may have levels up to 50 ppb. According to Krampner "The risk of getting liver cancer from aflatoxin in peanut butter [in the U.S.] is somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 to 20 cases of cancer per million exposed consumers. Suppose you eat a lot of peanut butter. Lets round up your odds to 100 in a million." This equates to one in 10,000. If this probability frightens you, lets put it in perspective by comparing other probabilities of dying from various causes.

The following probabilities for dying from a specific cause are from The National Safety Council and Centers For Disease Control (2007). All values are reduced to a fraction with the numerator (1) over the denominator (total number of people). Heart Disease (1/6), Cancer (1/7), Smoking Related Deaths (1/9), Stroke (1/28), Obesity Related (1/35), Heavy Drinking (1/49), Breast Cancer (1/95), Prostate Cancer (1/133), Car Accident (1/303), Airplane Accident (1/7,032), Flu (1/9,400), and Lightning (1/84,079). All of these probabilities are relative. If you are standing on the summit of a peak during a lightning storm, your chances of being hit are much greater. Your chances of getting liver cancer from peanut butter in the U.S. are about one in 10,000 (1/10,000). Of course, it is difficult to prove with 100% certainty that these relatively few cases of liver cancer are attributed solely to peanut butter. A microbiology professor once told a former student of mine that he would not eat peanut butter because of the risk of aflatoxins. I personally think his fear is unwarranted; however, I think eating peanuts and peanut butter in moderation is probably a good idea. In addition, I think eating peanut butter low in sugar and without hygrogenated oils is also better for your health. Actually, eating most foods in moderation is probably beneficial. I was also asked about eating peanut butter on an airplane--does this increase the risk of dying? According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), based on averages for 2001-2010, your chances of being struck by lightning during a lifetime of 80 years is 1/10,000. This is roughly the odds of getting liver cancer from eating peanut butter in the U.S.!

Note: According to the National Cancer Institute, almost all cases of liver cancer in the U.S. occur in people who first had cirrhosis, usually resulting from hepatitis B (HBV) or hepatitis C (HCV) infection, or from heavy alcohol use. Obesity and diabetes are other important risk factors.

  See Wayne's Word Article About Peanut Plant  

18. The Most Painful Botanical Encounters

Another category asked by an inquisitive student is "what is the most painful botanical encounter?" In my experience as a botanist, I would say that the most painful botanical experiences include close encounters with jumping cholla cactus, stinging hairs of "mala mujer" and poison oak. The fleshy stem segments of many species of cactus are heavily armed with sharp spines. The spine shaft of some species, such as jumping cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) are covered with microscopic overlapping scales all lying in the same direction. When you try to remove the spine, you pull against these scales which catch on your flesh. To make matters worse, the spiny stem segments are easily detached and are quickly transferred to your body appendages. Mala mujer (Cnidoscolus angustidens) is a Mexican roadside plant covered with stinging hairs. Like nettles, the sharp, glistening hairs (called trichomes) readily penetrate your skin and release some very irritating chemicals into your epidermal layer. Species in the related genus Tragia) inject a painful crystal of calcium oxalate into the skin. The trichomes of true nettles in the genera Urtica and Urera inject your skin with several stinging chemicals, including histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine. Some tropical nettles can be absolutely excruciating and cause numbness that may persist for weeks.

Some areas of Bisnaga Wash are literally covered with dense populations of jumping cholla (Cylindrocactus bigelovii). The stem segments litter the ground and are a hazard to careless hikers (see following image).

Left: Stem segment of jumping cholla (Cylindrocactus bigelovii), one of the most painful hitchhiking plants in the southwestern United States. The spines are exceedingly difficult to pull out of rubber soles and human skin. What makes this cholla so unique is that the stem segments or joints break off with the slightest touch and become firmly attached to various body extremities. If you barely touch or brush against the spines and then suddenly jerk away, the fuzzy stem fragment will be instantaneously upon you. Trying to pull out the barbed spines is not only frustrating and excruciating, but usually results in the joint or fragment becoming attached to another part of your anatomy.

Right: Image of a spine taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). It reveals why the spines of jumping cholla are so tenacious and difficult to pull out. The spine is covered with sharp, overlapping scales or barbs that lie flat and allow the spine to penetrate skin readily like a very sharp needle. When you try to remove a spine, you are pulling against hundreds of tiny scales. In the process, other spines penetrate the skin from all directions, making the extraction very painful and seemingly hopeless. This spine was removed from a student's foot on a field trip to Anza-Borrego many years ago. The student had access to a SEM. Needle-nose pliers are a handy tool to carry when walking through jumping cholla country.

The stinging hair of the common North American nettle (Urtica dioica) is actually a sharp-pointed cell called a trichome. This nucleated cell is embedded in a pedestal-like base composed of smaller epidermal cells. The slender shaft of the trichome is composed of silica, and the rounded apex breaks off with the slightest touch creating a sharp, beveled tip similar to a hypodermic needle. The hollow trichome readily penetrates the skin and toxin from the enlarged, bulbous base is injected into the skin tissue. The stinging toxin from this species of nettle is a combination of chemicals, including histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine.

There are reports of the incapacitation and death of horses from the Australian bush nettle Dendrocnide moroides. In general, the Australian bush and tree nettles of the genus Dendrocnide appear to be considerably more potent than the herbaceous North American nettles (Urtica and Urera). The chemical mechanism responsible for the extreme pain from contact with these tree nettles is apparently different from North American nettles. There are unconfirmed reports of human fatalities from a nettle called "devil-leaf" (Laportea or Dendrocnide) in Papua, New Guinea.

Contact with the sap of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) and the closely related poison ivy and poison sumac causes a miserable, allergic reaction with the body's immune system. It only takes a molecular trace of the potent poison oak allergen "urushiol" (2 micrograms or less than one millionth of an ounce) on the skin to initiate an allergic response. The urushiol readily penetrates the skin where it is ultimately destroyed by killer T-cells through a very complicated cell-mediated immune response. During the destruction of urushiol, neighboring skin tissue is also destroyed and a blistering, itching rash develops. Fluid oozes from blood vessels and lymphatics (edema) and cell death and necrosis (breakdown) of skin tissue occurs. Severe cases may require hospitalization, especially if droplets of urushiol have been inhaled in the smoke from burning poison oak.

Left: Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is described as a shrub, but it often grows like a climbing vine on the trunks of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in Diego County. Right: Poison oak (A) and a related, look-alike shrub Rhus trilobata (B) that also belongs to the sumac family (Anacardiaceae).

Chemical structure of saturated 3-pentadecylcatechol, one of the urushiol catechols found in poison ivy resin canals.
Click On Image To See Original Ball & Stick Model Of 3-pentadecylcatechol On Green Background.

The Ultimate & Most Painful Hitchhikers
Stinging Trichomes Of Cnidoscolus angustidens
Poison Oak: More Than Just Scratching The Surface

19. The Most Valuable Botanical Jewels

A lovely Ormosia necklace, probably made from Ormosia monosperma.

Disclaimer On The Authenticity Of Coconut Pearls
Alleged Coconut Pearl In Singapore Priced At $60,000

Most people think of natural jewelry as pearls, shiny pieces of coral, or precious and semiprecious stones, polished and set in gold or silver. But there are botanical gems that rival some of these minerals in value and beauty. Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient forests that thrived millions of years ago. During the fossilization process, the resins are literally metamorphosed into a hard, durable, plastic-like polymer. Often the amber contains insects and spiders 30 to 50 million years old (or older), perfectly preserved in nature's transparent tomb. Vegetable ivory is a hemicellulose polymer that comprises the endosperm of some palm seeds. With a hardness and luster of true ivory, it can be polished and used in jewely. Jet is a black mineral similar to hardened coal, formed by the carbonization of ancient conifer forests buried beneath the sea. It takes a high polish and makes beautiful pendants and necklaces. But of all these botanical jewels, the most controversial is the legendary "coconut pearl" that is reportedly found inside coconuts (Cocos nucifera).

Diorama of araucariad forest from 200 million years ago, when all the continents were united into the vast supercontinent Pangea. Whether any logs at Petrified Forest National Park came from trees such as these is unknown at this time. From all the thousands of petrified logs, one can only imagine the extent and diversity of this ancient forest of giant trees. Diorama on display at the Rainbow Forest Museum, Petrified Forest National Park.

For decades Baltic amber has been arbitrarily assigned to an extinct pine (Pinus succinifera) because of the presence of succinic acid; however, IR (infrared spectroscopy) studies show that Baltic amber may be more closely related to resins of broad-leafed conifers of the araucaria family (Araucariaceae). According to J.H. Langenhein (Plant Resins: Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology, and Ethnobotany, 2003), Baltic amber contains pinaceous inclusions (wood fragments and cones) but with araucarian chemical characteristics, so the origin of these vast deposits remains an enigma. Today the only evidence of araucariads in the northern hemisphere comes from amber deposits and petrified wood, such as occurs at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. In New Zealand a living araucariad forest of "kauri pine" Agathis australis produces copious amounts of resin that once formed a thriving industry for hard, durable varnishes and linoleum. Large lumps of hardened resin (up to 100 pounds in size) were dug out of the ground in extensive forested areas of North Island. Forests such as this may have once flourished in the Baltic region 60 million years ago. Throughout the world, the most copious resin-producing trees occur in tropical regions. These complex mixtures of terpene resins may serve as a chemical defense against the high diversity of plant-eating insects and parasitic fungi found in the tropics.

Milky, opaque resin oozing out of the trunk of a hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii), a large timber tree in forests of eastern Australia. This large tree was cut down in October 2004 to make room for the new Science Building at Palomar College. Unlike the clear resins of pines (Pinus), this resin superficially resembles vanilla frosting. In New Zealand, a living araucariad forest of "kauri pine" Agathis australis produces copious amounts of resin that once formed a thriving industry for hard, durable varnishes and linoleum.

Baltic amber necklace. For decades, Baltic amber has been arbitrarily assigned to an extinct pine (Pinus succinifera); however, IR (infrared spectroscopy) studies show that Baltic amber is more closely related to resins of broad-leafed conifers of the araucaria family (Araucariaceae). Forests similar to the present-day "kauri pine" Agathis australis in New Zealand may have once flourished in the Baltic region 60 million years ago, and may be the source of precious fossilized resin known today as "Baltic amber."

Any discussion of fossilized araucariads would be incomplete without mentioning a medieval gemstone called jet. Jet is a semiprecious gem excavated in Europe and formed by the metamorphosis and anaerobic fossilization of conifer wood buried under sediments in ancient seas. Ancestral forests that metamorphosed into jet date back to the Jurassic Period, about 160 million years ago. Some authors have suggested that these forests were similar to present-day araucaria forests in South America; however, this has not been substantiated in peer-reviewed botanical journals. Coal deposits are often formed from a variety of decayed woods. Chemically, jet it is a hard, carbonized form of bituminous coal with a density similar to anthracite coal. Anthracite can be readily identified by its metallic luster. Jet takes a high polish and has been used for shiny black jewelry for thousands of years. It has a specific gravity of 1.3, almost as hard as the ironwood called lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale). Jet became very popular during the mid 19th century England during the reign of Queen Victoria, and was often worn to ward off evil spirits and during times of mourning. In the first century AD, the Roman naturalist and writer Pliny described the magical and medicinal attributes of this beautiful mineral. The well known analogy of "jet" and "black" was coined by William Shakespeare in his "black as jet" from Henry VI part 2. One of the most famous areas for the mining of Victorian jet is Whitby on the rugged Northeast coast of England.

Although they are similar in hardness, anthracite has a metallic luster and jet is dull black. Jet takes a high polish and has been used in various carved jewelry, such as cameos and intaglios. The Victoria jet broach (circa 1890) was a popular item of jewelry during the 19th century.

See Article About Vegetable Ivory From Palms
See Photo Comparison Of Jet & Anthracite Coal
See Article About Seeds & Fruits Used For Jewelry
See Article About Amber: Nature's Transparent Tomb

The Legendary Coconut Pearl

Probably the most interesting of all botanical jewels is allegedly produced by the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), the legendary "coconut pearl." There is considerable disagreement among botanists as to whether coconut pearls actually exist, or whether they are calcareous concretions from giant clams, or a myth that has been perpetuated for centuries. In fact, several botany textbooks flatly state that coconut pearls are a hoax because proof of their existence is totally unfounded. In his book entitled Seed to Civilization (1973), Charles B. Heiser, Jr. states that coconut pearls in museums have been shown to come from mollusks. The famous "Maharajah coconut pearl" was on display at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables, Florida during the 1990s. It was discovered on Celebes Island in the Java Sea and presented to Dr. David Fairchild in 1940. The alleged "pearl" given to Dr. Fairchild was not in its original coconut, so there is serious doubt as to its authenticity. Unfortunately, I prematurely published an on-line note about this "pearl" in 1996 before I discovered that it did not come from a coconut. My old note still appears on some websites, even though there is overwhelming evidence to show that so-called "coconut pearls" do not come from coconuts!

The famous "Maharajah coconut pearl" sitting in the shell of a coconut. This alleged botanical jewel was on display at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in the city of Coral Gables, Florida. This "pearl" originally given to Dr. Fairchild in 1940 was not in its original coconut, so there is serious doubt as to its authenticity.

A "coconut pearl" mounted in a beautiful ring made of pure gold. This family heirloom is from northern Malaysia and is approximately 130 years old. The pearl is opaque with a porcelaneous luster similar to the Maharajah coconut pearl. The magnified view shows faint, intersecting lines around the outer surface. Images courtesy of O.L. Laine.

Giant clam (Tridacna gigas), one of the sources of the infamous coconut pearl.

See The Wayne's Word Article About Seed Jewelry

According to a display at the Fairchild Tropical Garden, coconut pearls come from "blind coconuts," so called because the inner nut or endocarp does not have the three characteristic "eyes" (germination pores) of a typical coconut. [I have never seen a coconut without germination pores at one end.] Without a germination pore the embryonic growth within the hard-shelled nut is supposedly retarded, and this abnormal situation may in some unknown way be related to the formation of a stone. Although there are many varieties of coconuts, they all belong to either of two major types known as niu kafa and niu vai. The niu kafa type have an elongate, angular fruit, up to six inches in diameter, with a small egg-shaped nut surrounded by an unusually thick husk. Niu vai coconuts have a larger more spherical fruit, up to ten inches in diameter, with a larger spherical nut inside a thin husk. According to Hugh C. Harries (Botanical Review Vol. 44, 1978), the niu kafa type represents the ancestral, naturally-evolved, wild-type coconut, disseminated by floating. The niu vai type was derived by domestic selection for increased endosperm ("meat" and "milk") and is widely dispersed and cultivated by humans. Based upon tertiary fossil evidence in the South Pacific (long before the voyages of ancient mariners) and convincing dispersal studies by Harries and his associates, coconut palms probably originated on tropical islands of the Indo-Malaysian region.

See The Ocean Dispersal Of Wild Niu Kafa Coconuts

Photo-Illustration of a Germinated Coconut

Sprouting fruit of a coconut Cocos nucifera. The hard inner layer (endocarp) contains the actual seed composed of a minute embryo and food storage tissue (endosperm). The seed is surrounded by an outer brown layer called the seed coat or testa. This is the brown material that adheres to the white "meat" or endosperm when it is removed from the endocarp shell. The base of the embryo (cotyledon) swells into an absorbing organ that fills the entire cavity of the seed as it digests the endosperm. The endocarp has three germination pores, one functional pore and two plugged pores. [In "blind coconuts" all three pores are plugged.] The three pores represent three carpels, typical of the palm family (Arecaceae). A needle will readily penetrate the functional pore. Just inside the functional germination pore is a minute, cylindrical embryo embedded in the endosperm tissue. During germination, a spongy mass develps from the base of the embryo and fills the seed cavity. This mass of tissue is called the "coconut apple" and is essentially the functional cotyledon of the seed. In some older references this cotyledon mass is referred to as a haustorium, the organ of absorption in parasitic flowering plants. [The white color in photo has been altered in order to clearly differentiate it from the endosperm.] It dissolves and absorbs the nutrient-rich endosperm tissue to supply the developing shoot with sugars and minerals. Eventualy, the developing palm becomes self sufficient, as its leaves produce sugars through photosynthesis and its roots absorb minerals from the soil. The coconut "apple" is rich in sugars and is a sweet delicacy in tropical countries. The endosperm is the coconut "meat" which is dried and sold as "copra." The coconut "water" is multinucleate liquid endosperm inside green coconuts that has not developed into solid tissue composed of cells. It is incorrectly called "coconut milk" in some references. Before the liquid endosperm forms a solid "meat" it is jellylike and may be eaten with a spoon. This stage of the endosperm development is called "spoon meat." The "coconut milk" used in many Asian recipes is made by soaking grated coconut meat in water and squeezing out the oil-rich liquid. "Coir" fibers are derived from the fibrous mesocarp. The saturated fat called coconut oil is derived from the meaty endosperm.

Close-up view through the inside of a coconut seed showing a small, cylindrical embryo (A) embedded in the fleshy meat or endosperm (B). The base of the embryo (pointing into the coconut) swells into an absorbing organ (cotyledon) that fills the entire cavity of the seed as it digests the endosperm. The wall of the endocarp (C) is a hard, woody layer that makes up the inner part of the fruit wall. The thick, fibrous husk (mesocarp) that surrounds the endocarp has been removed. The alleged coconut "pearl" apparently develops where the embryo is located.

See Cells Of Coconut Endosperm Containing Fat Globules

Close-up view of the three germination pores on the endocarp of a coconut. Although only one pore is functional, each pore represents one of the three carpels of this monocotyledonous plant. An ordinary paper clip can easily penetrate the functional germination pore. This allows the developing shoot to grow out of the hard, woody endocarp. The other two pores are impenetrable woody depressions. "Blind" coconuts apparently do not have germination pores (or do not have a functional germination pore). They are the alleged source of coconut pearls. As I stated above, I have never seen a "blind" coconut.

View inside of an old coconut that has started to germinate. The embryo (mostly cotyledon) has enlarged and penetrated the interior of the coconut (black arrow). The cotyledon develops into a spongy mass that fills the interior (seed cavity). It dissolves and absorbs the nutrient-rich endosperm tissue to supply the developing shoot with sugars and minerals. This sweet mass of tissue is called the "coconut apple" and is essentially the functional cotyledon of the seed. It is eaten as a nutritious delicacy in many tropical regions. Although the oval structure in this photo has the general size and shape of a so-called "coconut pearl," it is not calcareous.

In 1925, Dr. F.W.T. Hunger published an article about coconut pearls for the prestigious journal Nature Vol. 115: 138-139. He described two eyewitness accounts of pearls actually observed inside of coconuts, one from Dr. J.G.F. Riedel in Celebes and one from a coconut plantation in Borneo. Dr. Hunger also acquired eight blind coconuts from the Tanimbar Islands (Moluccas) of Indonesia, one of which contained a pearl embedded in the endosperm. He concluded that the pearl was the remnants of a calcified haustorium (cotyledon mass) in a blind coconut that was unable to germinate: "... the newly formed haustorium becomes encrusted under the influence of the coco-nut milk [endosperm] with calcium salts, although it still remains unexplained why the cocos-pearl consists almost entirely of calcium carbonate, while neither the cocos-kernel nor the coco-milk contain this carbonate." The previous statement is untenable in my opinion. How could multinucleate coconut water (liquid endosperm) and a pulpy, cellular mass composed of cellulose and protein turn into a dense calcareous stone, unless it was buried in sediment for centuries and petrified by mineral replacement. The alleged pearl apparently had no evidence of cellular or vascular tissue indicative of cotyledon tissue. Dr. Hunger also cites a coconut plantation where approximately three million coconuts were opened annually for years, and yet no pearls were ever found.

In 1939, Dutch zoologist A. Reyne, chief of the Coco-nut Research Station at Menado, Celebes, studied the structure of so-called coconut pearls in public and private collections, and concluded that they were pearls from giant clams of the genus Tridacna. He examined the concentric striations (lamellae) of the pearls, including thin sections mounted on microscope slides. His research was published in the journal Annales Jardin Botanique de Buitenzorg Vol. 49: 43-48. Eight years later, Reyne published a detailed article about the structure of the shells and pearls of clams in the Dutch journal Arch. Netherlands Zoology Vol. 8: 206-242 (1947). According to Dr. Reyne, fraudulent coconut pearls are common and widespread throughout Malaysia, particularly Celebes. He examined the notorious pearl of Dr. Riedel and concluded that it came from a giant clam. Regarding Dr. Hunger's famous coconut pearl: "I am convinced that it is a Tridacna-pearl, as it shows a bipolar structure with the peculiar white veins of the crossed lamellar structure clearly developed. It seems likely that Dr. H., who as a botanist was not familiar with Tridacna-pearls, has become the victim of some trick of the natives." This story was also mentioned in an anonymous note in Nature Vol. 160 page 653 (1947).

David Fairchild's original discovery of his alleged coconut pearl is described in his book Garden Islands of the Great East: Collecting Seeds From the Philippines and Netherlands India in the Junk "Chêng Ho." It was published in 1943 by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Apparently Fairchild did not have the actual "blind coconut" from which the pearl was derived. The following is from page 124 of chapter 16 (The Coconut Pearl): "It was really an exciting morning when Kilkenny, who was always making friends on shore, placed in my hand a large pearl and said, 'it's a coconut pearl, Doctor. It comes from inside a coconut.' I had never even heard of such a thing until a few days before, when Captain Diedrich, with whom Daan and I had been lunching on his little K.P.M. steamer, had spoken of them. Now I could scarcely believe my eyes." His photo of the pearl appears on page 128 with the folowing caption: "This rare jewel is pictured about as it would be found in the white meat of a coconut near the end where the sprout comes out through the pore." It is obvious that the "pearl" had been placed in a sectioned coconut for the photograph. In chapter 17, Dr. Fairchild states: "The Coco pearl is so rare that you may open 750,000 nuts without finding one." I have no idea how Fairchild came up with 750,000, the number could just as well have been a million. I have also seen published estimates as low as one in 2,000. Although hundreds of millions of coconuts are harvested annually for food (copra) and fiber (coir), there appears to be no records of coconut pearls showing up in the coconut industry.

The age-old question "do coconut pearls exist?" may forever be open for discussion; however, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and the proof is lacking here. Perhaps some so-called coconut pearls are really pearls of giant clams or another mollusk. The meticulous writings of naturalists such as Georg Eberhard Rumphius indicate they are real; however, these naturalists did not see the original "blind coconuts" from which the pearls were extracted. According to biochemist Abraham D. Krikorian (Principes Vol. 26, 1982), who has studied the writings of the distinguished 17th century naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius, the alleged "pearls" appear to be calcareous. Rumphius reported that coconut stones readily lose their luster when boiled in a weak acid solution of vinegar or lemon juice, suggesting that they may be slowly dissolving. The pearl apparently develops in the embryonic region of the coconut, but there is no explanation for how such a smooth, spherical or oblong structure could be formed inside of a coconut.

Intracellular crystals of calcium salts, such as calcium oxalate, are fairly common throughout the plant kingdom. Under a compound microscope, the glistening crystals resemble many-faceted diamonds. The stems of some bamboos, including spiny bamboo (Bambusa bambos), contain silica concretions composed of silicon dioxide. Some palm seeds contain vegetable ivory, hardened endosperm tissue containing a polysaccharide called hemicellulose. Like wood, vegetable ivory is essentially composed of dead cells; however, unlike grainy hardwoods it has a texture and hardness similar to ivory. In fact, vegetable ivory is remarkably dense, with a rating of roughly 2.5 on the scale of mineral hardness. Ivory-nuts can be polished in a stone tumbler, as you would polish agates and quartz, or by using tin oxide and a buffing wheel. Perhaps some reports of hard, white objects inside coconuts are remnants of dried endosperm tissue.

A many-faceted druse crystal of calcium oxalate (black arrow) in a three-year-old stem of American basswood (Tilia americana). The crystals are formed within the central vacuoles of parenchyma cells in the cortex region just outside the phloem. Peculiar, crystal-bearing cells are sometimes called crystalliferous idioblasts. 1,000x magnification.

A Caroline ivory-nut palm (Metroxylon amicorum) native to the Caroline Islands of Micronesia. The unusual one-seeded fruits are covered with numerous shiny brown scales and superficially resemble a closed pine cone. Upper Right: The seed (endosperm) has been cut in half using a hacksaw blade. Lower Right: The hard endosperm has been carved into a bowl.

See Wayne's Word Aticle About Vegetable Ivory
See The Remarkable Grass Known As Bamboo

In mollusks, a calcareous concretion (pearl) is often produced when a foreign object becomes lodged between the shell and outer flesh (mantle) of a bivalve. Pearls can also be formed in univalves, such as conchs and whelks. Foreign objects can be naturally-occurring, or they may be induced, such as in cultured pearls of oysters. The mantle epidermis responds by encapsulating the object within thin concentric layers of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate known as nacre or mother-of-pearl. Aragonite has unique optical properties that account for the light refraction and beautiful opalescence of nacre. The crystalline structure of aragonite is orthorhombic, with three trangular sides that act as tiny prisms. A number of mollusks that do not produce commercially valuable pearls still have iridescent nacreous layers lining their shells that are used to make mother-of-pearl jewelry. According to G. Brown, S.M.B. Kelly and J. Snow (The Australian Gemologist Vol. 16, 1988), aragonite pearls from the clams Tridacna and Hippopus have been fraudulently transplanted into coconuts. These pearls can be readily identified using translumination studies with high intensity fiber optic light, x-ray diffraction, and comparisons of their refractive index and specific gravity. In fact, the above authors reported a fraudulent coconut pearl manufactured from a sea shell.

Crystals of aragonite from Arizona.

Aragonites are also found in geological formations and corals. Calcites are another crystalline form of calcium carbonate that occur in many rocks, including spars, travertine, tufa, chalk, alabaster, onyx, limestone, marble and the stalactites and stalagmites of caves. Calcite occurs in several different color forms and also fluoresces under UV light.

Calcite Stalactites In Kings Canyon National Park

Author Neville S. Haile traveled extensively in Malaysia in search of coconut pearls. In Jakarta he purchased a white, pear-shaped stone called "mastika kelapa" (mestica calappa), supposedly obtained from a coconut. The name mastika (also spelled mestika or mostika) refers to rare Malaysian stones found inside fruits. Striations on the stone together with its specific gravity revelaed that it was composed of aragonite, the same material found in mollusk shells. Haile examined other coconut pearls in collections and published his conclusions in The Straits Times Annual (1974). According to Haile, there are at least three kinds of objects sold as coconut pearls: (1) "Rather crude artifacts made from shell (probably slightly translucent, banded giant clam shell) with rather crude incised grooves." This type fits his original Jakarta purchase. (2) "Chalky white, finely banded and finely grooved pearls probably also artifacts of shell, either young giant clam, or some other kind of shell." (3) "Pearls from mollusks, including giant clams." Haile also states that although a number of bogus coconut pearls have been exposed, this does not disprove the existence of genuine ones. In my opinion, there is substantial evidence that pearls are not produced inside coconuts. In fact, I am astounded that some botanical references still perpetuate secondhand evidence for their existence. The existence of coconut pearls seems to be based on faith rather than objective scientific evidence.

Alleged coconut pearls are in collections at two prestigious botanical gardens, including Kew and Fairchild Tropical Garden. The Kew pearl is more oblong in shape, compared with the spherical Maharaja pearl at Fairchild. These large, opaque "pearls" are not inside their original coconuts so they could have come from another source, possibly a giant clam. Detailed examinations have clearly shown that alleged coconut pearls in public and private collections have concentric aragonite layers as in true molluskan pearls. In fact, fraudulent coconut pearls have been thoroughly studied by Dr. A. Reyne and others, particularly pearls originating in Celebes. It is interesting to note that Dr. Fairchild's famous Maharaja coconut pearl also came from Celebes.

It is difficult to place a monetary value on a so-called coconut pearl without knowing its origin and composition. In his classic six-volume work entitled Herbarium Amboinense (1741-1750), Rumphius described and illustrated exquisite coconut pearls owned by Malaysian dynasties, often mounted in jeweled settings of gold and silver. Apparently poreless (blind) coconuts bring high prices in the Orient and are only found in the collections of the wealthy Radjas and merchants. Formerly, all "blind" coconuts belonged to the Radja and were not the property of those who found them.

As I stated above, most eyewitness records of coconut pearls cited in the literature are secondhand accounts that were not observed by the authors of these articles. There are a few firsthand, published accounts of pearls observed inside coconuts, but these have been shown to be fraudulent. The existence of coconut pearls is another myth like the "Loch Ness Monster" and "Bigfoot," only in the case of coconut pearls, realistic fabrications will always be around to cloud the truth. In fact, there are websites where you can actually purchase "coconut pearls." One site claims that the authenticity of their "coconut pearls" is based on psychic verification by a trained shaman. They also state that they cannot guarantee the authenticity of their "coconut pearls" with 100 percent certainty, but this "does not mean the pearls and stones are fake." I suppose it isn't too surprising to see "coconut pearls" for sale on the Internet since there are also websites offering extraterrestrial real estate for sale on the moon.

During the 1990s I published several articles where I suggested that coconut pearls might exist. Completely independent of my articles, J.F. Veldkamp of the National Herbarium of the Netherlands published an article in 2002 on coconut pearls entitled "VIII. Mestica Calappa, the Coconut Pearl, Trick or True?" for the prestigious Flora Malesiana Bulletin Vol. 13. He recently (14 August 2007) sent me an addendum to his original article that will be published in Vol. 18 of Flora Malesiana Bulletin. It seems that Dr. Veldkamp and myself both arrived at the same conclusion regarding the lack of authenticity for coconut pearls.

Although I once supported the existence of coconut pearls, I now believe there is insufficient evidence to support such a conclusion. If you find any old Internet references that credit me as a believer in coconut pearls, they are incorrect and should be updated.

Disclaimer On The Authenticity Of Coconut Pearls
Alleged Coconut Pearl In Singapore Priced At $60,000

References About Coconut Pearls

  1. Anon. 1947. "No Pearls in Coco-nuts." Nature 160 (4071): 653.

  2. Armstrong, W.P. 2005. "Coconut Pearls: A Reevaluation of Authenticity." Ornament 28 (2): 46-49.

  3. Armstrong, W.P. 2007. "Do Pearls Come From Coconuts?" The Drifting Seed 13 (1): 13-17.

  4. Brown, G, S.M.B. Kelly, and J. Snow. 1988. "A Coconut Pearl?" The Australian Gemologist 16 (10): 361-362.

  5. Corner, E.J.H. 1966. The Natural History of Palms. University of California Press, Berkeley.

  6. Fairchild, D. 1943. Garden Islands of the Great East: Collecting Seeds From the Philippines and Netherlands India in the Junk "Cheng Ho." Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.

  7. Haile, N.S. 1974. "The Captivating Quest for the Mysterious Coconut Pearl." The Straits Times Annual: 75-77, 159.

  8. Harries, H.C. 1978. "The Evolution, Dissemination and Classification of Cocos nucifera L." Botanical Review 44: 265-320.

  9. Heiser, C.B. Jr. 1973. Seed to Civilization: The Story of Man's Food. W.H. freeman and Company, San Francisco.

  10. Hunger, F.W.T. 1925. "Nature and Origin of Coco-Nut Pearls." Nature 115 (2882): 138-139.

  11. Krikorian, A.D. 1982. "Coconut "Stones" or "Pearls": Early Descriptions by Alzina, Kamel and Rumphius." Principes 26 (3): 107-121.

  12. Reyne, A. 1939. "Coconut Peals." Ann. Jardin bot de Buitenzorg 49: 43-48.

  13. Reyne, A. 1947. "On the Structure of Shells and Pearls of Tridacna squamosa (Lam.) and Hippopus hippopus (Linn.)." Arch. Netherlands Zoology 8: 206-242.

  14. Rumphius, G.E. 1741-1750. Herbarium Amboinense. Volumes 1-6. Den Haag, Amsterdam.

  15. Veldkamp, J.V. 2002. "VIII. Mestica Calappa, The Coconut Pearl, Trick or True?" Flora Malesiana Bulletin 13 (2): 143-153.

  16. Veldkamp, J.V. 2008. "Mestica Calappa, The Coconut Pearl. 2. The Mystery Unravelled." Flora Malesiana Bulletin Vol. 18 (In Press).

20. Disclaimer: Authenticity Of Coconut Pearls

If You Are Considering The Purchase Of One Of
These Plant "Gems," Please Click On This Link

21. The Most Complex Plant-Insect Relationship

NYBG Steere Herbarium Definition of Gynodioecious: Sexual condition of a species that bears pistillate flowers on some plants and bisexual flowers or staminate flowers as well as pistillate flowers on other plants. The important word here is "or" rather than "and" [e.g. Fig (Ficus) & Mulberry (Morus)].

The most complex and truly extraordinary method of insect pollination occurs in fig trees of genus Ficus. Male and female fig wasps are borne inside hollow, fleshy, flower-bearing structures called syconia. In a strict botanical sense, what we typically associate with a fig "fruit" is actually an inside-out flower cluster (inflorescence) called a syconium. At one end is a small opening called an ostiole. The syconium is lined on the inside with hundreds of tiny, pollen-bearing male flowers and seed-bearing female flowers, and the wasps develop from eggs laid inside the ovaries of the short-style female flowers (one egg per flower). In about half of the fig species (referred to as monoecious), male flowers and the long and short-style female flowers occur in the same bisexual syconium; but in all other fig species (referred to as dioecious or gynodioecious), the seed-producing, long-style female flowers only occur in unisexual syconia on female trees. Since wasp eggs are not laid in the long-style flowers, the ovary of this type of flower contains a seed rather than a wasp (assuming it is pollinated). This remarkable floral dimorphism is how the fig tree produces seeds while still maintaining its vital, "in-house" population of symbiotic wasps. There are approximately 1,000 species of figs, mostly distributed throughout tropical regions of the world, and they all have their own pollinator wasp species that only enters their syconia through a small opening to pollinate the female flowers inside. Without their special symbiotic wasps the female flowers inside would not get pollinated and no seeds would be produced (a catastrophe for the fig tree).

Syconia of California wasp-pollinated "Calimyrna figs" contain only female flowers and must be pollinated in order to ripen. Each tiny flower consists of a five-parted calyx and an ovary with a long style. Following pollination and fertilization the ovaries develop into minute one-seeded drupelets with a hard inner layer (endocarp) surrounding the seed. The seed-bearing drupelets produce the superior nutty flavor and crunch. Without pollination Calimyrna syconia fail to ripen and drop from the branches.

Syconia Of The Calimyrna Fig (Ficus carica):

1. Ficus carica has 2 sexual forms, the "male" caprifig and the female tree (edible fig). Caprifig trees are monoecious with separate male (staminate) flowers and short-style female (pistillate) flowers within the syconia. It is functionally male because it produces pollen. The caprifig syconia also contain wasp larvae inside the ovaries of female flowers because the egg-laying wasp is able to oviposit through the short styles into the ovaries of these flowers. Since a hungry wasp larva occupies each ovary, fig seeds generally do not develop.

2. Edible Calimyrna fig syconia contain only long-style female flowers. Seeds develop within the ovaries of these flowers since the styles are too long for the female wasp to oviposit through. Her ovipositor is not long enough to penetrate the ovaries of these flowers so she does not deposit an egg. Fig seeds develop inside the ovaries of long-style flowers since there is no larva to eat them.

A. Close-up view of a male and female fig wasp (Pleistodontes imperialis) that inhabits the syconia of the Australian rustyleaf fig (Ficus rubiginosa). The slender ovipositor on female wasp is too short to penetrate the ovary of long-style flowers; therefore she does not lay eggs in these flowers. The smaller, wingless male has large mandibles and a greatly reduced body which has two primary purposes: (1) Inseminating the female and (2) Chewing exit tunnels through the syconium wall through which the females escape. The "eye" of an ordinary sewing needle is shown for a size comparison. These wasps were collected from trees growing by the old Life Science building. The biology students were always amazed when I brought them into my laboratory classes.

B. A non-pollinator "bogus" fig wasp collected from the syconium of the Baja California wild fig (Ficus palmeri, or possibly Ficus brandegeei). The ovipositor is much longer than the symbiotic pollinator wasp. In fact, some non-pollinator wasps can penetrate the entire syconium wall from the outside. Non-pollinators can also lay eggs in long-style fig flowers reserved for fig seeds. Consequently, no seeds are produced in these flowers. In addition, these "bogus" fig wasps do not pollinate fig flowers. Although they do not benefit the fig tree, non-pollinator wasps of the families Torymidae and Eurytomidae are common inhabitants of New World monoecious fig syconia. Their coexistence with natural fig pollinator wasps is a complex and perplexing coevolutionary problem in fig biology.

Syconium of Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrocarpa) in Palomar College Arboretum. Palomar College horticulturist Tony Rangel grew viable seeds from this tree, so I suspected that the pollinator wasp (Pleistodontes froggatti) must be present.

Pleistodontes froggatti from Moreton Bay fig syconium in Palomar College Arboretum.

Complete Index Of On-Line Fig Articles On Wayne's Word

  1. A Petrified Fig Syconium From The Cretaceous Period
  2. Bogus Nonpollinator Fig Wasps With Long Ovipositors
  3. Calimyrna Fig & Its Amazing Pollinator Wasp
  4. Caprifig Fig Overwintering Mamme Crop
  5. Cauliflory In Tropical Species Of Figs (Ficus)
  6. Coevolution Of Fig & Fig Wasp: Vicarious Selection
  7. Evolution Of Dioecious Fig Species
  8. Ficus dammaropsis: A Remarkable Fig From New Guinea
  9. Fig Pith Sculpture: Microscopic Carvings From The Azores
  10. Figs Of The Holy Land (Their Role In World Religions)
  11. Gall Controversy: Do Fig Wasps Really Induce Gall Formation?     
  12. Hybrid Between Common Edible Fig & Creeping Fig
  13. Multiple Fruits Of The Mulberry Family (Moraceae)
  14. Pollination Patterns In Dioecious Figs
  15. Sex Determination & Life Cycle Of Common Fig (Ficus carica)
  16. Sexuality In Figs--Plant Sexuality & Political Correctness
  17. Strangler Figs & Banyans: Truly Remarkable Trees
  18. Summary Of Common Fig (Ficus carica) Life Cycle
  19. The Amazing Fig/Fig Wasp Relationship
  20. The Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila)--Source Of Grass Jelly
  21. Vicarious Selection In Figs (Richard Dawkin's Model)
  22. Wild Figs (Higueras) In Baja California & Gulf Islands
  23. Reference Articles Cited In The Above On-Line Pages

Was The Fig The Earliest Cultivated Plant?

Parthenocarpic Varieties Of Ficus carica

There are many cultivated "parthenocarpic" varieties of the common fig in which the syconia develop on female trees without wasp pollination. The ripe syconia are fleshy and edible; however, the numerous ovaries (drupelets) inside are hollow and seedless. Examples of these varieties include 'Brown Turkey,' 'Mission' and 'Kadota.' The remains of parthenocarpic fig syconia in ancient settlements of the Jordon Valley indicate the people recognized natural parthenocarpic trees and propagated them by cuttings more than 11,000 years ago. According to fig connoisseurs, pollination produces a more delicious fig with a superior nutty flavor due to the seeds. In fact, the best fig newtons come from wasp pollinated 'Calimyrna' fig orchards in Fresno and Madera Counties. Most of the trees are female, but growers also maintain small groves of wasp and pollen-bearing male trees called caprifigs. The prefix capri refers to goat, and these inedible figs were fed to goats in the Old Word.

Fig Cultivation Predates Cereal Domestication

Kislev, M.E., Hartmann, A. and O. Bar-Yosef. 2006. "Early Domesticated
Fig in the Jordan Valley." Science 312 (5778): 1372-1374. 2 June 2006

The remains of parthenocarpic fig syconia (edible figs) have been discovered in archeological sites of the Jordon Valley that date back to 11,400 years bp. The carbonized syconia are clearly parthenocarpic because the drupelets are without embryos or seeds. Wild populations of Ficus carica are gynodioecious with male trees (caprifigs) and female trees. Edible figs are produced on female trees only if they are pollinated by fig wasps (Blastophaga psenes) from the syconia of male trees. The male syconia contain wasps and pollen, and are generally not eaten. They were named "caprifigs" because they were commonly fed to goats. If pollinated, seeds develop inside the druplets within syconia on female trees. Without pollination, the immature figs are shed by the female trees. According to W.B. Storey (1975), parthenocarpy is produced by a single domant mutant gene. Female trees expressing this gene retain their developing figs to maturity, even though they are not pollinated and contain no seeds. Parthenocarpic trees must be propagated by cuttings because they do not produce seeds. They produce sweet fig fruits (syconia) without the need for male trees that carry symbiotic fig wasps within their syconia. This is very advantageous to farmers in regions where the wild caprifigs and natural pollinator wasps do not occur. The presence of parthenocarpic figs in ancient settlements indicates that people recognized these rare parthenocarpic trees and propagated them by planting branches. Evidence of such activity may mark one of the earliest forms of agriculture. Fig trees could have been the first domesticated plant of the Neolithic Revolution, which preceded cereal domestication by about 1,000 years.

Fig Cultivation May Not Predate Cereal Domestication

Lev-Yadum, S., Ne´eman, G., Abbo, S., and M.A. Flaishman. 2006. "Comment on Early
Domesticated Fig in the Jordan Valley." Science 314: 1683a. 15 December 2006

Parthenocarpic trees of Ficus carica produce 1 or 2 annual crops of seedless syconia (see Table of Fig Crops). They are all capable of producing seeds if they are pollinated by caprifigs containing fig wasps and pollen. These parthenocarpic syconia could have come from wild trees that grew from seeds. "Because all parthenocarpic fig types can produce seeds, the finds described in (1) cannot serve as an unambiguous sign of cultivation and lend no support to the notion that horticulture predated grain crops in the Near East."

Left: 'Brown Turkey', a parthenocarpic variety (cultivar) of the common fig (Ficus carica). Right: Another parthenocarpic variety of F. carica similar to 'Verte'. It produces a heavy 2nd (main crop) late in the fall (October-November). The syconia have a green outer skin and strawberry interior. This is the most delicious, sweet fig that I have ever eaten.

Seed-bearing endocarps of Ficus carica variety 'Verte' at the bottom of a dish of water. Although this cultivar is parthenocarpic, it has been pollinated by fig wasps from a nearby caprifig. Endocarps with mature, viable seeds typically sink in water. These are the actual fruits of a fig. They are the sclerified inner layer of tiny, ovule-bearing ovaries after the thin, fleshy, outer pericarp layer has been removed. Hollow (seedless) drupelets produced without pollination and fertilization are called cenocarps. If the endocarps contain wasp larvae they are called psenocarps.

Dried fig varieties from Bates Nut Farm, San Diego County. Left: Black Mission. Right: Calimyrna

22. The World's Largest Ballistic Seed Launched Explosively

Many species of plants throughout the world have developed ingenius mechanisms to forcibly eject their seeds away from the parent, a phenomemon known as mechanical dispersal. The common naturalized lawn weed in southern California called creeping woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata) is a good example of mechanical dispersal. The minute seeds are forcibly ejected as the fuzzy capsules split open. When mowing a lawn or walking through a patch of creeping woodsorrel, the seeds are often ejected onto your clothing. Dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium) is especially interesting because sap within the white berries develops considerable hydrostatic pressure causing the berries to literally explode when they are ripe. Placing your warm hands near the ripe berries can hasten the forceful ejection of seeds. Seeds only three millimeters long may shoot up to 49 feet (15 m) laterally, with an initial velocity of about 62 miles (100 km) per hour. The small, sticky seeds can be felt if they strike a sensitive area of your body. A Mediterranean member of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae), called the "squirting cucumber" (Ecballium elaterium) explosively ejects its seeds like a miniature canon.

But of all the plant species capable of launching their seeds, the most amazing is the sandbox tree (Hura crepitans), a member of the large and diverse euphorbia family (Euphorbiaceae). Hura crepitans is native to the Caribbean region, and the large seed capsule was apparently used to hold sand as a blotter before the advent of paper blotters and ball point pins. The large, pumpkin-shaped seed capsule explodes like a hand grenade when mature, only the shrapnel consists of seeds and dolphin-shaped sections (bracts). The round, flattened seeds are about 3/4 on an inch in diameter (16-19 mm) and are launched at about 150 mph (70 meters per second). The initial explosion sounds like a small caliber hand gun. I recall one exploding in my kitchen cupboard that sounded like a powerful firecracker. The noise actually frightened a guest who was in my kitchen at the time.

Partially exploded seed capsule of Hura crepitans. The shrapnel
consists of flattened, circular seeds and dolpin-shaped bracts.

 See Unexploded & Exploded Seed Capsule! 

The shrapnel bracts superficially resemble dolphins and are often used in
Caribbean seed necklaces, bracelets and earrings (see following image).

See The Sandbox Tree (Hura crepitans)
Mechanical Dispersal In Oxalis Species
Mechanical Dispersal In Dwarf Mistletoe
The Wild & Wonderful World Of Gourds

References About Hura crepitans

  1. Chen, Tiffany. Demonstration Version Of Computer Program For Draggy Trajectories.
    Available on-line at:

  2. Swaine, M.D. and T. Beer. 1977. "Explosive Seed Dispersal in Hura crepitans L. (Euphorbiaceae)." New Phytol. 78: 695-708.

  3. Vogel, Steven. 2005. "Living in a Physical World. II. The Bio-Ballistics of Small Projectiles." J. Biosci. 30: 167-175.

  4. Vogel, Steven. 2005. "Living in a Physical World. III. Getting Up To Speed." J. Biosci. 30: 303-312.

23. Most Bizarre Wildflower In The U.S.

See The Most Bizarre Wildflower In The US

24. The World's Smallest Poppy

See The World's Smallest Poppy

25. The World's Hottest Chile Pepper

Bhut Jolokia
According to the 2007 Guninness Book of World Records, the 'Bhut Jolokia' variety of chile pepper grown in the hilly terrain of Assam, India is the hottest chile pepper. Other names for this variety are 'Bih Jolokia', 'Naga Jolokia' and 'Naga Morich.' It has a reported heat index of 1,001,304 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The Bhut Jolokia is about three times as hot as the average habanero (300,000 SHU). According to The Complete Chile Pepper Book by Dave DeWitt and Paul Bosland (Timber Press, 2010), DNA tests revealed that it belongs to the C. chinense group of chile peppers along with the notorious habanero, but also contains C. frutescens genes as well.

Trinidad Scorpion Butch T
As of March 1, 2011, the world's hottest pepper according to the on-line Guinness World Records is the 'Trinidad Scorpion Butch T' grown by The Chile Factory in Australia. Tests conducted by EML Consulting Service in Morisset, New South Wales revealed a heat index of 1,463,700 SHU. It originated in Trinidad and has a slender pointed apex like a scorpion's stinger. This strain was discovered by Butch Taylor, owner of Zydeco Hot Sauce.

Scorpion Stinger
Another contender for the world's hottest chile pepper is the Trinidad Morouga (Moruga) Scorpion. It is named after the Morouga region of southeast Trinidad. This variety has not been rated by the on-line Guinness World Records as of September 2011. Stay tuned.

Records are made to be broken, and this is certainly the case with chile peppers. As of February 10, 2012, the world's record for the hottest pepper is the 'Moruga Scorpion' ('Moruga Scorpion' Pepper is the World's Hottest Chile Pepper at more than 2 million Scoville Heat Units, Gregory Reeves, Danise Coon & Paul Bosland, Department of Plant & Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003). The mean SHU was 1,207,764, with the highest value at 2,009,231. According to Guinness World Records (2013), the hottest chile pepper is the "Carolina Reaper" with an average SHU value of 1,569,300 and high SHU of 2,200.000! Since the "hotness" of chile peppers may be affected by environmental conditions (incl. soil, nutrients, water, temperature, etc.), competing strains should ideally be grown under identical conditions and tested in the same lab.

  New Mexico State University: Measuring Chile Pepper Heat  

From Reeves, Coon & Bosland, 2012. Above paragraph includes "Carolina Reaper."

Hotness of a chile pepper can vary depending on the environmental conditions under which the specimen grew and how the laboratory test was conducted. The capsaicin (capsaicinoid) content of a chile pepper is determined using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). The HPLC data is converted from parts per million (ppm) or milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) to Scoville Heat Units (SHU) by multiplying it by 16. Pure capsaicin was defined as 16 million SHU, although it was originally defined as 15 million. A multiplier of 15 instead of 16 will reduce the SHU rating by 6.25 percent. For example, a ground-up pepper sample that is 1000 ppm capsaicin will have a hotness rating of 16,000 SHU. Using 15 as your multiplier reduces the SHU rating by 1000. It is important for different laboratories to be consistent in their analyses and use the same multiplier. HPLC should be calibrated first using a known concentration of capsaicin solution. The ground up chile fruit (seeds, pericarp and placenta) should be carefully weighed and prepared the same way. Most of the capsaicin is in the placental region where the seeds are attached, so it is imperative to indicate exactly which part of the chile is ground up for testing. Grinding up only the placental region, and not the entire pepper, will give a higher SHU rating. Until unbiased replicated experiments have been conducted by independent labs, conclusions on the hottest chile pepper are open for discussion.

Cross section of the ripened ovary (fruit) of a habanero pepper (Capsicum chinense) showing three locules (chambers) and axile placentation. The central region (outlined in blue) where the seeds are attached is the placenta. In hot chile peppers, the placental region contains up to 89 percent of the alkaloid capsaicin. This alkaloid causes a burning sensation when it comes in contact with the sense receptors in your tongue. Capsaicin is produced by a dominant gene. Since bell peppers are homozygous recessive for this trait, they do not produce capsaicin. Depending on the reference, this pepper may be only 3 or 4 on the Scoville Heat Scale (300,000), but I can personally testify that it can be excruciating. I once cut up several habanero peppers in a biology lecture. Several students doubted the potent capsaicin content of the placenta region but soon became believers when their foreheads beaded up with perspiration. During the break I used a restroom and inadvertantly transferred some capsaicin molecules to my private parts loaded with sense receptors. I was in absolute misery when I returned to the classroom. I soon realized that capsaicin does not wash off that well with soap and water!

According to Dr. Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University (Personal Communication, 2011), the heat levels of a single plant can be up to 78 percent higher than the average for the field in which it was grown. Thus, one single plant may be a record setter for that year and location, but it does not prove the variety as a whole is record setting. While a single pumpkin can be crowned "the biggest" in pumpkin size contests, should a single fruit of a very hot Capsicum variety deserve to be listed as a record breaker? In order to conduct a scientifically valid test to determine the hottest chile pepper variety, an ample seed sample must be planted in replicated trials that include the current hottest variety and appropriate controls. A random sample of fruit from the replicated varieties should then be tested at an independent legitimate testing facility. The variety with the statistically higher heat level could then be considered as the reigning hottest variety. Single fruits would not qualify, nor would samples without appropriate comparisons. If the 'Bhut Jolokia' had also been growing in the Butch T field, might it have been hotter than 1,463,700 SHU? Only a controlled scientific test would give us the "true" answer.

In case you accidentally bite into a very hot chile pepper in a dimly-lit restaurant, try sipping on a dairy product, the thicker and creamier the better. The protein casein helps to remove the capsaicin molecules from your tongue and mouth.

See The Wayne's Word Chile Pepper Article

26. The Largest Families & Genera Of Flowering Plants

Diversity Of Flowering Plants
Sunflower Family (Asteraceae)
The Legume Family (Fabaceae)

In other words, if all the 250,000 species of flowering plants on earth were lined up at random, every 4th species would be a sunflower (Asteraceae), a legume (Fabaceae) or an orchid (Orchidaceae)! If you happen to pick a legume, the odds that it will be one of the 2,000 species of locoweeds (genus Astragalus) is about one out of nine!

Largest Genera Of Flowering Plants With 800 or More Species*


* Judd, W.S., Campbell, C.S., Kellogg, E.A., Stevens, P.F., and M. J. Donoghue. 2008. Plant Systematics:
A Phylogenetic Approach
(Third Edition). Sinauer Associates, Inc., Sunderland, Massachusetts.

** Some authors subdivide Euphorbia into several genera incl. the prostrate sandmats (Chamaesyce).
The On-line Plant List By Kew & Missouri Botanical Garden gives 2031 species for Euphorbia.

*** The On-line Plant List By Kew & Missouri Botanical Garden gives 2,481 accepted species
for the genus Astragalus, 2029 species for Carex, and 149 species for Rosa.

Working List Of All Known Plant Species. 2011. Kew & Missouri Botanical Garden.
Publishished on the Internet:

Astragalus (Locoweeds): One Of The Largest Plant Genera

27. The World's Longest Plant Name

A minute South African bulb plant in the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) has the longest plant name listed in the Kew Plant List. Its scientific binomial (genus & specific epithet) is: Ornithogalum adseptentrionesvergentulum.

The above binomial has 38 characters and is the longest plant name that I am aware of. One of the shortest names is Poa fax,an Australian grass with only 6 characters in its scientific name.

   Important Plant Taxonomy Links     Search The Kew Plant List       International Plant Names Index  

28. Most Primitive Flowering Plant

Although considerable evidence has been compiled since the time of Darwin, the precise origin of flowering plants in the early Cretaceous (140 million years ago) remains an enigma. As I stated above, Darwin mentioned this controversy in 1879 when he referred to the origin of flowering plants as an "abominable mystery." There are at least four hypotheses to explain the origin of flowering plants.

     Origin Of 1st Flowering Plants        Origin Of 1st Land Plants        The Primitive Magnolia Family  

Molecular phylogenetic studies indicate that the first split within modern angiosperms is between a lineage that includes a single species (Amborella trichopoda) and all the rest of the extant angiosperm species. In other words, Amborella is monophyletic with all the rest of the angiosperms (see right cladogram: Origin of Amborella & Angiosperms). Amborella trichopoda is a rare flowering shrub that grows in the rain forest understory in New Caledonia. Unlike practially all other angiosperms, Amborella xylem has only tracheids, supporting the modern view that the first angiosperms lacked vessels. Amborella gametophytes are also unusual in having three, rather than two, synergid cells with the egg cell at the micropylar end (egg apparatus), hence a total of nine nuclei and eight cells in the embryo sac. According to W.E. Friedman (Nature 441, 2006), this extra cell in the egg apparatus could provide evidence of a critical link to the gymnospermous ancestors of flowering plants. The gametophyte of the vast majority of angiosperms has three cells in the egg apparatus, and a total of seven cells and eight nuclei in the embryo sac (see angiosperm life cycle below).
Origin of Amborella & Angiosperms.

Underside of flowering branch of male Amborella trichopoda.

Close-up view of male (staminate) flowers of Amborella trichopoda. Each flower is aprroximately 4 to 5 mm in diameter with a dozen or more bract-like tepals (perianth segments undifferentiated into petals & sepals). The flowers have a dozen or more spirally arranged stamens, which become progressively smaller toward the center.

Water Lily (Nyphaea odorata)
Amborella trichopoda (above): A rare, sprawling, understory shrub from New Caledonia, and the most primitive living flowering plant. It belongs to the monotypic family Amborellaceae in the monotypic order Amborellales. Most authorities consider it to be the living descendent of a line of primitive flowering plants without vessels that diverged near the base of the main clade of vessel-bearing angiosperms about 130 million years ago. The younger growth (inset) has bright green, shiny leaves. The flowers have many tepals (perianth parts not differentiated into calyx & corolla) and numerous stamens. They are similar in appearance to miniature versions of the closely-related water lily clade (order Nymphaeales), see left image.
  1. Williams, J.H. 2009. "Amborella trichopoda (Aborellaceae) and the Evolutionary Developmental Origins of the Angiosperm in Programic Phase." American Journal of Botany 96: 144-165.

Left: Vessels in midvein of petal from Brodiaea terrestris ssp. kernensis. The spirally-thickened secondary cell walls appear like coiled springs. This provides strength as well as flexibility to these strands of tubular, water-conducting cells that compose the xylem (vascular) tissue. Right: Two types of water-conducting cells: tracheid and vessel (vessel element). Technically a vessel is composed of many hollow vessel elements joined end-to-end like sections of PVC pipe. With the exception of the Gnetophyta, most gymnosperms lack vessels. Vessels are characteristic of all flowering plants, except for the earliest ancestral sister clade (Amborella) that have only tracheids like most gymnosperms.

29. The Rarest Flowering Plant

It is difficult to list the single rarest flowering plant on Earth because there are so many species throughout the world with limited distributions and many of these are threatened with extinction. In the United States there are many county, state and federal lists with numerous rare and endangerment categories. For example, the California Native Plant Society rare plant ranking system includes 1: Rare in California and elsewhere; 2: Rare in California, but not elsewhere; A: Presumed extirpated or extinct; and B: Rare, threatened, or endangered. I have hundreds of images of rare and endangered California wildflowers with a CNPS ranking of 1B. They have very limited geographic ranges and many of them are not in cultivation.

Rare Native California Wildflowers With CNPS 1B Rating.

The above 4 native California wildflowers have a CNPS rating of 1B: "Rare, threatened, or endangered in California and elsewhere." The rock lady (Holmgrenanthe petrophila) is one of the rarest species. It is known from only ten occurrences in Titus and Fall canyons in the Grapevine Mountains bordering Death Valley. It grows on vertical limestone walls and is difficult to spot. Calico monkeyflower (Mimulus pictus) has a limited distribution in the foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada. San Diego thornmint (Acanthomintha ilicifolia) is rare in northern San Diego County. Its range has been greatly reduced due to uncontrolled housing developments (urbanization). I coauthored Brodiaea santarosae, a beautiful wildflower that only grows on basalt outcrops in the Santa Rosa Plateau of Riverside County, California.

Vernal Pools: California's Rarest Plant Community

According to the International Union For Conservation of Nature and Natural Resorces (IUCN), there is a tree in New Zealand with only one living specimen in the wild. A shrub on Kauai has only 7 mature individuals in the wild and requires hand pollination to set seed. Another East African tree has only a small number of mature trees in the wild because it has been extensively cut down for fire wood. These 3 species are mentioned below.

Pennantiaceae: Pennantia baylisiana

I f the following record for Pennantia baylisiana is correct, I cannot see how a plant could be any more rare if only one individual survives in the wild! The record for Brighamia insignis gives only 7 mature plants in the wild, and these require hand pollination. Both of these species were in danger of extinction and are now under cultivation. The popular cultivated tree Ginkgo biloba was thought to be extinct in the wild; however, to this day there is still some controversy as to whether forests of this tree in remote southeastern China are truly native, or whether they were planted by people. But one thing is certain, this remarkable tree has changed very little since it grew in ancients forest more than 200 million years ago, long before the current configuration of today's continents, and when enormous dinosaurs ruled the land.

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Campanulaceae: Brighamia insignis

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Alula (Brighamia insignis), a rare member of the lobelia family (Campanulaceae) endemic to steep sea cliffs on the island of Kauai. In 1994 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reported five populations totaling 45 to 65 individuals, and listed the plant as an endangered species. The IUCN lists only 7 mature plants in the wild. According to the U.S. Botanic Garden, its only pollinator was a certain type of now-extinct hawk moth. This has made it impossible for B. insignis to reproduce on its own because individuals only produce seed when artificially pollinated by humans.

Alula is perfectly adapted for living on vertical volcanic cliffs. A single rosette of leaves arises from the top of a thick, succulent stem, like a cabbage head on a baseball bat. The rosette varies in size, depending on the availability of moisture. Roots penetrate the cliffs horizontally, and the base of the plant is rounded, permitting the plant to rock slightly in the wind. Water stored in the stem enables the plant to survive periods of drought which may last days or weeks. The flower is very different from members of the lobelia family on the mainland of North America. Another rare species with white flowers (B. rockii) grows on sea cliffs along the windward coast of Molokai. Like Hawaii's endemic silver sword alliance that evolved from an ancestral tarweed (Asteraceae), the alulu is another example of adaptive radiation. According to Sherwin Carlquist (Hawaii: A Natural History, 1980), the Hawaiian lobeliads evolved from several ancestral introductions rather than a single original colonization; however, molecular data from Thomas J. Givnish of the University of Wisconsin (Evolution on Islands, 1998) indicate that they are monophyletic in origin and represent the product of a single introduction.

This alula (Brighamia insignis) produced fruit (capsules) with viable seed and it was not hand pollinated. Pollination is a mystery--could it be another local long-tongued moth or a bird?

Fabaceae: Gigasiphon macrosiphon

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Gigasiphon macrosiphon is a rare leguminous tree known only from moist, lowland and coastal forests of Kenya and Tanzania. According to Encyclopedia Of Life (EOL), destruction of East African coastal forests and the use of this tree for firewood, tools, charcoal and lumber has reduced its population to 33 known mature individuals in the wild. The International Union For Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assessed G. macrosiphon with "Red List Endangered Status" in 1997, and in a report in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) places this species on their list of 100 most endangered species in 2012. The seeds are remarkably similar to "sea beans" Mucuna species, tropical vines that produce drift seeds that float across the world's oceans.

Bat Pollinated Sea Beans (Mucuna)

The Kew Plant Index includes four accepted species in the genus Gigasiphon: G. amplus, G. gossweileri, G. humblotianum and G. macrosiphon. Seeds of G. humblotianum, a species native to Madagascar, have been verified by B. Verdcourt on beaches of east Africa (Kew Bulletin Vol. 36 No. 4, 1982). According to Verdcourt, the illustration of G. humblotianum seeds on page 161 of World Guide to Tropical Drift Seeds and Fruits is misidentified as Mucuna: "It also matched a drawing in C. R. Gunn & J.V. Dennis' book on drift seeds (World Guide to Tropical Drift Seeds and Fruits, New York,1976, fig. 66/A-D), also incorrectly captioned Mucuna sp." The caption reads "Beaches of Canton Island." This is a South Pacific island approximately half way between Hawaii and Fiji. G. humblotianum is clearly a drift seed species capable of long ocean voyages.

Gigasiphon macrosiphon: The shape and thick hilum of the seeds resembles those of sea beans (Mucuna). Unlike Mucuna seeds, the brown, smooth hilum does not have a thin line or groove along the center. The tough, indehiscent seed pod contains two seeds and they appear to be adapted for drifting in water. According to the Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu, Hawaii, this unusual tree may be extinct in the wild. Several web sites postulate that only 30-40 trees survive in its native habitat. Ann Robertson (The Drifting Seed May 1998) has collected drift seeds of Gigasiphon on the East African coast of Malindi, Kenya. Her seeds were apparently from a different species (G. humblotianum) native to Madagascar. See: B. Verdcourt, B. 1982. "Gigasiphon humblotianum (Leguminosae: Caesalpinioideae -- Bauhinieae) as a Drift Seed." Kew Bulletin 36 (4): 659-660.

Although the seeds of Gigasiphon macrosiphon resemble Mucuna species, the large blossoms are very different from the pea-shaped (papilionaceous) flowers of Mucuna (subfamily Papilionoideae = Faboideae). Gigosiphon actually belongs to a different subfamily, the Caesalpinioideae. It is more closely related to Bauhinia than Mucuna. In fact, it belongs to the subtribe Bauhiniinae that includes the genera Bauhinia, Barklya, Brenierea, Gigasiphon, Lysiphyllum, Phanera, Piliostigma, Schnella, and Tylosema. See: Wunderlin, R.P. 2010. "Reorganization of the Cercideae (Fabaceae: Casesalpinioideae)." Phytoneuron 2010-48: 1-5.

Another "critically endangered" species on the IUCN Red List planted on the Palomar College Campus (Botanical Garden): Chloroleucon fortum (Brazilian rain tree). This rare species is endemic to Brazil and Paraguay.

There are literally hundreds of other botanical record-breakers, the list of categories is only limited by one's imagination. Most of these records will probably remain obscure trivia, hidden away in the bewildering maze of botanical literature. Although they may never make the book buyer's best seller list, they do make fascinating highlights for biology and botany lectures, and help to keep students in the last row from falling asleep.

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