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Byron Shire
February 28, 2021

Complicated sex life of the Banksia

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Banksia blossom. Photo Mary Gardner
Banksia blossom. Photo Mary Gardner

Story & photo Mary Gardner

Taking only a photograph of this Banksia, I still ‘nip it in the bud’. Looking closely, only the bottom flowers are blooming. The dab of yellow is the tip of the female part of each flower. The curly bits are the male parts. Eventually, each of the many flowers will open.

Blossoming slowly now, these trees are also marking the swing from one season to another. Ever so slowly, so I can get used to cooler days and longer nights.  More darkness means these nectar producers have more time for bats, who are some of the plants’ favourite pollinators. The idea of trees depending on animals brings together botanists and zoologists, as well as you and me, to consider the ecology of sex.

For Banksia, breeding is a drawn-out affair. None of the hurly-burly of the usual vegetables, in the ground one month and producing seeds the next. Birds, bats and other mammals visit the sequence of blossoms again and again, eating nectar, spreading pollen. In the end, most of the showy flowers will not ‘set’ seeds. After three to ten years, there will only be some follicles ripe on each ‘cone’. Some species of Banksia will release whatever seeds that are ripe whenever they please. Others wait for the heat of a fire.

The sex life gets more complicated. For example, in some places, people have planted different species of Banksia. They all happen to flower at the same time. Besotted bats, sugar gliders and honeyeaters cross the pollen of one with the other. Again only some seeds set, but they create new hybrid ones.  These novel plants may just suit the conditions of the next swing in the total landscape. Or meet the changing preferences of another generation of pollinators. Or tickle the faddish tastes of the next bevy of people.

Aboriginal people using fire and harvesting cones first influenced the spread of what they here called wallum.  In 1770, Joseph Banks took some over to the new Kew Gardens in London. As isolated exotics, these overseas plants may only ever know pollination by human hands.

Banks was being honoured having his name attached to these plants. But since 1918, Australian colloquialisms include ‘bad Banksia men’. These are the villains worrying the gumnut babies Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, created by May Gibbs.

Gibbs herself played a part in an even wider ecology of sex. As a young artist visiting England, she was active in the suffragette movement. She studied and contributed cartoons for newspapers. Returning to Sydney, she horrified family and convention because she lived with a female flatmate and paid her own way as illustrator and writer. She married when she was forty and had no children.

Social satire was part of Gibbs’s cheeky cartoons. One was about ‘the modern woman’. The fashionable character ages gracefully, spending her first three decades refusing various lovers until finally in her fourth, she marries one. Hurrah for the children’s authoress defying labels of ‘spinster’ or ‘background talent’.

Only as recently as 2005, England legislated that the term ‘single’ instead of ‘spinster’ could be used on marriage registration forms.  In 2012, Sarah Ensor uses the term ‘spinster ecology’ to describe a certain caring for and influencing of future generations without necessarily having children. Ensor cites American authors such as Rachel Carson, Sarah Orne Jewett and Henry David Thoreau as singles who made the world their family. Why, she asks, are so many ecological stories ‘heterosexist’?

Don’t we all wonder why the biological definition of ‘success’ is only ‘passing on genes’? Does nature seriously abide by Victorian systems of titles, inheritances, morals and values?

Regardless, lavish and beyond censure, the Banksia flowering riots on.

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  1. Thanks for that illuminating essay! I have a large banksia specimen on my property. It was here when I moved in 2011. It looks quite old and it’s a fascinating tree, from it’s beautiful sawtooth leaves and wrinkled trunk to it’s large blooms. Certainly it’s a mecca for honeyeaters and flying foxes. So it’s good to learn more about it’s sex life!
    I’ve been on a steep learning curve re the natural environment of this beautiful Tweed Valley. The more info the better! Thanks, Serena.


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