Mother Nature’s Mistakes: Trilliums, Quadliums, and More
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide
Have you ever had a day, when you were so tired, that you started making mistakes? When you look around, and see some of Mother Nature’s mistakes, you begin to wonder if maybe she gets tired too.
At Tryon Creek State Natural Area you can see many of Mother Nature’s mistakes. Everyone knows, for example, that trilliums (Trillium ovatum) have three petals, like the picture below. That’s why they’re called trilliums; the “tri” stands for “three.”
But when you pay attention, you see that every now and then there is a trillium that doesn’t quite follow the rules, like this trillium I found on Middle Creek Trail. Four petals! So is it a quadlium?
Not only does it have 4 petals, it has four leaves too!
As if that’s not weird enough…
Take a close look at the number of stamens (those long fuzzy yellow things that make the pollen) and the number of styles (the white things in the very center that look like tiny, curved octopus arms, which are female parts of the trillium). A normal trillium has six stamens and three styles, but not this one!
Curiouser and curiouser
How about this trillium (pictured below) that popped up along Old Main trail a couple of years ago with two conjoined ovaries; six stamens and six styles, instead of the normal three styles.
It doesn’t end there
Later on in the season, this flower produced a conjoined pair of seed capsules.
Compare the normal seed capsule on the left to the capsule which developed from the two conjoined ovaries on the right.
Any guesses as to why?
These “mistakes” aren’t necessarily genetic mutations, but might be just developmental anomalies. Developmental anomalies are the result of abnormal things that happened during plant development. The anomalies can be the result of a variety of environmental factors, like water stress or cold shock, or even an infection with certain types of bacteria or plant viruses.
And more…maple mishaps
Mother Nature’s mistakes aren’t limited to trilliums. Normally, the seed of the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) is born in pairs, as you see in the picture on the left.
However, on occasion, the seeds will be produced as triplets, as you see on the right.
1 in 500
During a recent check at Tryon Creek, I found that slightly less than 1 in 500 maple fruits was a triplet. All the rest were double-seeded. However, keep your eyes open; years ago in the Oregon coast range, I found a bigleaf maple fruit consisting of 7 seeds all joined together.
These oddities are interesting of course, but can they do more than just gratify our idle curiosity?
Yes! As Francois Jacob, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine said,
“One of the most effective ways of determining the normal mechanisms of the cell is to explore abnormalities in suitably selected monsters.”
By “monsters” of course he meant abnormal specimens. For example, if we only looked at normal trilliums, or even the four-petaled trillium, we might conclude that there was some process in the plant which ensured that there were always twice as many stamens as styles. However a single glance at the trillium with conjoined ovaries shows that isn’t true.
So if you think you’ve “seen it all” at Tryon Creek, just keep your eyes open for more of Mother Nature’s “mistakes.” They open up a whole new world of wonder.