Staminodes in nettles, an elegant use of ‘spare’ parts

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Fruit of Pilea japonica, ripe seeds are black and at their base you can see some white structures folded in on themselves. These are the modified stalks of remnants of male flower parts

Nettles have unisexual flowers, that is each flower functions only as a male or a female. Counter-intuitively though the flowers still retain the non-functional and often much-reduced organs of the non-functional sex. These are called pistillodes in the case of the rudimentary female organs in male flowers and staminodes in the case of the rudimentary male organs in female flowers.  In part of the nettle family the staminodes are put to good use: ejecting the seed from the fruit.

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Male flowers of Elatostema nanchuanense (left) showing the male flower parts, a pollen sack borne on a stalk and left their modification in the female flowers of the same species

This can be best understood by considering that nettles have male flowers which open explosively, pollen being released in tiny clouds (they are also very small). In fact one species, Pilea microphylla, is commonly known as the artillery plant for this reason. The mechanism for the explosive opening of the male flower is that the stalks (filaments) of the pollen sacks (anthers) are folded in on themselves in bud. As they develop these stalks fill with water until they are all pressing against each other within the flower bud and ready to burst. At a certain point the pressure becomes too great for the thin petals of the flower bud and they rip leading to the stalks being able to straighten explosively. This has happens incredibly quickly and although it has not been recorded for nettles, in the closely related mulberry where this also happens, the flower can open in 25 millionths of a second, moving petals to velocities in excess of half the speed of sound.

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Elatostema nanchuanense showing the fruiting flower head with staminodes, fruit and an ejected seed indicated by yellow arrows

In one group of nettles which includes seven genera this explosive ability of the pollen sacks has been harnessed to release the seed from the fruit. Below you can see a close-up of the fruit of Pilea japonica showing the staminodes flexed and ready to eject the seeds (dark coloured).

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