Some families united purely by awesomeness (ok, and genetics).

Plants are a weird bunch. We’ve known this for a very long time but since genetics and all its assorted magic came into being, we’ve found out that they’re weirder than we ever even imagined. This post is about three families which no one would ever have thought were closely related but which genetics has proven to be part of the same order (a group of families all more closely related to each other than to anything else). They’re one big collection of oddballs, which is probably why I enjoy them so much.

Firstly, there’s the Platanaceae. You’ll probably know these guys as London Planes; the gnarly, unabashedly big, vividly green stalwarts of posh London avenues. I love these trees with their bauble-like inflorescences and tendency to destroy puny human inventions like pavements and roads with their mighty roots. Here’s one, entirely upstaging the church next to it.

By Lestat (Jan Mehlich) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Does that pile of recycled dirt and sediment build itself out of thin air using nothing but flimsy green solar panels? I think not!’

Then there’s the Nelumbonaceae, or Lotuses. Their flowers are wonderful colours with a crazy gynoecium (female reproductive bit) that looks like it’s made of play dough with holes poked in it and their leaves are the most fun things to throw water on since the alkali metals. Here’s quite a nice video with a jolly soundtrack showing them being awesomely water repellent.

People are trying to use this property to make paints and other things that would usefully repel water. It’s pretty spectacular and there are some interesting physical properties behind it all. (Here’s a page with more information and links, for those of you who want to read about micro-topography and superhydrophobicity. I know you exist.)

The third family completing this wonderful collection of bizarre plants is the Proteaceae which have dried fruits/seed cases that look a bit like Donald Duck’s laughing beak mouth, cloned over and over and stuck on a pine cone.

Dried_banksia_flower

Quaaaack.

I find this picture hilarious, which probably tells you more about me than it does about the Proteaceae.

So how did this motley crew of families end up being one another’s closest relatives? Well, their order, the Proteales, is thought to be extremely old (120 million years old) so the idea is that it was once much more diverse but over time all the other groups have gone extinct, leaving only this handful of fabulous, flamboyant survivors.

References:

http://www.mobot.org/mobot/research/apweb/orders/protealesweb.html (for the botany geeks)

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About adelecmj

I'm a PhD student at the Open University, where I study pollen-vegetation relationships in Ghana. I like plants, rocks, and science in general.
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