By Wendy Hollender & Emet Lipson
All of nature (including every person) experiences gender and sexuality differently. We at Draw Botanical thought Pride Month to be the perfect time to delve into the beauty of nature’s diversity and how we have imposed our human terminology and judgments of sexuality and reproduction onto the plant world.
Studying (and, of course, drawing!) the many ways in which plants compete, survive, and reproduce is fascinating to me. I love watching my garden – seeing mugwort (annoyingly) succeed at reproducing with their shallow roots, choking out my vegetables and dahlias. Plants’ main desire is to survive and reproduce, competing for hospitable soil in which to flourish. Plants have wildly different ways of achieving this same goal, and each method is valid, free from judgment.
Plants proudly reproduce sexually or asexually. Sexual reproduction requires genetic material from two parents, ensuring that offspring are not identical to either parent. “This genetic diversity can help them survive if the environment changes” (4). In flowers, one parent is “male,” referring to stamens that contain pollen, and the other parent is “female,” referring to pistils that receive pollen to fertilize an ovule, creating fruits with seeds that develop into new plants (4).
While some plants self-pollinate, others cross-pollinate, requiring wind or animals, called pollinators, to transport the pollen. Cross-pollination promotes genetic diversity, so some plants develop their parts at different times to avoid the homogeneity that accompanies self-pollination (4). Some plants found it advantageous to grow separate male and female attributes (unisexual), while others thought it better for them to possess male and female parts within the same flower (bisexual / simultaneous hermaphroditism), and some others learned that transitioning from male to female (sequential hermaphroditism) was best for them (1).
Asexual reproduction requires only one parent and produces a clone that is genetically identical, making them more susceptible to disease and less adaptable to changes in the environment (4). All of them exist, and none of them are “normal”! Read more about how plants reproduce here.
Did you know that plants are grouped into families based on the way they reproduce? Learn to identify plant families in lesson 8 of The Practice of Botanical Drawing.
I find it especially interesting that even though we have been taught to describe plant reproduction as sexual and asexual, the male and female parts are not responsible for the “active” work. Mostly, pollinators are incentivized to transport pollen from one flower to another, initiating reproduction.
Flowers do their very best to entice pollinators to come inside – creating beautiful colors, interesting structures, intoxicating scents, and the sweet gift of nectar with which pollinators are ultimately rewarded. Plants also ensure the spreading of fertilized seeds, often by housing them in delicious fruits that encourage animals to eat them and disperse the seeds in various locations for new plants to grow.
I am also intrigued by the comparison between flowers’ and humans’ techniques of attraction. Some humans like to dress up, sometimes in pretty colors, and put on perfume and make-up to attract potential mates. Did we learn this from the flowers?
We also look to flowers to show us how to accept our differences to better our world. Roses don’t hate tulips. Fruits don’t hate vegetables. They all peacefully coexist, complementing each other’s beauty. Why did humans decide to diverge from this way of being and design our society around hate?
The decision-makers in our society (white, wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual men) have shaped the world we live in based on their biases and beliefs that they were superior and others were inferior. To ensure their maintenance of power, they created a world that intentionally excluded those they deemed inferior, those they didn’t understand. Progress is slow; we still live in that world.
“It is impossibly difficult to exist in a world that isn’t made for you, that doesn’t have space for you, that omits you. Every ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ every ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ restroom, every ‘boys’’ and ‘girls’’ club and sports team and locker room inflicts its own wound, not to mention every movie, tv show, podcast, and book without a single trans character. Surviving those many wounds, day after day, year after year, leaves you not just bleeding, but broken and defeated.” -Emet
Carl Linnaeus was the first taxonomist to consistently use shorter names for organisms, creating the classification system still used today. His hierarchical system reflected 18th-century culture and prioritized “male” organs, giving them more taxonomic importance than “female” organs. “Linnaeus’ judgments were not based on empirical evidence, but rather on traditional tenets of gender-related bias” (5).
These traditional, patriarchal tenets influenced how society was created. They are baked into everything we are taught, everything we know to be true. “From an early age, we are indoctrinated into heterosexuality and the gender binary: the idea that there are two fixed, “opposite” sexes that attract. It’s ironic that animals are often used as the analogy, because in nature we find a diverse array of flora, fauna, and fungi that challenge our notions of gender and sexuality” (3). For example, “the striped ash was recently discovered to change sex. As many as 36,000 sexes of fungi can be found, all of which can mate with each other” (3).
This is NOT to say that no beings and nature are cisgender and heterosexual. There are those who identify as male and female and those who are attracted to the “opposite” sex, AND there are those who don’t fit inside any of those boxes. While some propose ridding society of boxes altogether, some are creating new boxes like gender non-conforming, gender fluid, agender, pansexual, asexual, demisexual, and more. This IS to say that there is no “normal.” Each individual is different, and society benefits from such biodiversity.
“Personally, I’m a queer genderqueer! My sexuality (who I’m attracted to) is queer, meaning I’m not attracted to solely one sex. My gender (who I am) is genderqueer / non-binary / trans, meaning I’m not a man nor a woman, and I’m not the gender that was assigned to me at birth. (This is why you may see my pronouns (they/them) next to my name on Zoom meetings. This means that when you refer to me, you can say things like, ‘Emet is so helpful; they always have an answer to my question! I should ask them what their cat’s name is.’)” -Emet
Until Emet came to work with me, I had always thought of ‘they’ as plural. For the first few weeks, whenever Vern would refer to a meeting she had had with them, I kept thinking, “who else was in the meeting with Vern and Emet?” I finally realized “them” meant Emet! It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but I am trying. I want Emet to feel comfortable, and if that means amending my vocabulary, I am all for it.
Every person, as well as all of nature, experiences gender and sexuality differently. Just as plants do, we accept all of the different experiences and expressions under the rainbow. We encourage you to explore your own gender and sexuality and notice where and how they show up in the world. As humans, we have the power to intentionally redesign the world to accommodate biodiversity and minimize harm done to those who don’t fit in our traditional boxes.
“Unseal the soil; make it porous and permeable to create a welcoming ground for all. Grant spaces for roots to grow in all human and nonhuman communities. Promote a wide diversity of beings that will grow and mingle, exchanging and caring for each other. By exploring the power of trees, shrubs, flowers and herbs as a source of inspiration, we can find alternatives to the way we design and act – whether on the scale of a private garden, a public space or a national territory – in order to shape truly inclusive metropolitan ecosystems.”
–Céline Baumann, French landscape architect (2)
Note: We welcome your feedback on this and other posts, as we continue exploring nature and botanical art to provide interesting and relevant information.
- Baumann, C. (2017). Queer Nature. Studio Céline Baumann. Retrieved June 14, 2022, from https://studiocelinebaumann.com/works/queer-nature/
- Baumann, C. (2020). Queer Nature. Studio Céline Baumann. Retrieved June 14, 2022, from http://studiocelinebaumann.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/celine-baumann_archithese_queer-nature_2020.pdf
- Defebaugh, W. (2022, March 11). Let’s talk about sex. Atmos. Retrieved June 14, 2022, from https://atmos.earth/queerness-and-homosexuality-in-nature/
- Digital Programs Team, L. T. S. (2020, January 17). Plant Reproduction. Let’s Talk Science. Retrieved June 14, 2022, from https://letstalkscience.ca/educational-resources/backgrounders/plant-reproduction
- Moore, R. (1997). Linnaeus & the sex lives of plants. The American Biology Teacher, 59(3), 132–132. https://doi.org/10.2307/4450266