Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tomato Gaia - Sexual Encounter with a Blossom

I just had a sexual encounter with a tomato blossom for the first time, using an electric toothbrush!


For the past few years, I've grown a few tomato plants behind our screen house (called a "bird cage" down here in Central Florida). The tomato plants took care of their own pollination with the aid of helpful bees and other insects.

This year, for the first time, I also grew a tomato plant from a "topsy-turvey" upside-down gadget hanging inside our bird cage where there are no insects to do the pollination job. So, it was either depend upon the wind - or do it myself!

The tomato blossom has both male and female parts. Normally, the buzzing of bees or other insects vibrates the blossom, causing the pollen, which is inside the male stamen (the straw-like thing hanging down from the center of the blossom in the inset photo - click image for a larger version) to loosen and shower out. Some of it drops onto the female pistil which hangs out just below the end of the stamen. Absent insects in my bird cage, I had to take matters into my own hands. That is where the electric toothbrush came in. It is the closest thing to the buzzing of the bee's wings that do the job naturally.

It turns out that tomatoes like to have sex at high noon, on sunny days that are not too humid. I was pleased to see the white powder fall out of the blossoms as I gently vibrated them. It was such a satisfying feeling that I immediately did the same for the blossoms outside the bird cage. Why let the insects have all the fun?

The Tomato Gaia

Which brings us to the mini-Goddesses who unite insects and plants in a symbiotic relationship. Some plants have their male and female parts in separate places, or on separate plants, which requires the bees (or other insects, or animals, including hummingbirds, etc.) to get the pollen on their bodies and transport it from the male to the female part. In each case, the animal polinators are drawn to the plants by olifactory and visual signals and are rewarded with food.

In the case of the tomato, with both male and female parts close together, all it takes is vibration and that may be supplied by the wind. However, the wind may blow the pollen far and wide, wasting a lot of it. The wind is less discriminating than a bee, for example, which is why the tomato blossom holds its pollen within a straw-like structure and releases it most readily in response to the particular frequency of the bee's wings during the middle of the day when bees are most likely to be active.

Bees who specialize in tomato pollination have evolved to buzz at the most suitable range of frequencies, and, for their part, tomato blossoms have evolved to release pollen when stimulated at those frequencies. Like many mutually-beneficial relationships, individual bees and tomato plants have no idea why they grow and behave as they do, but, if we look at the situation from the species level, we can see that "trial and error" evolution and natural selection has generated an almost perfect matching.

The Gaia hypothesis (named for the Greek Goddess of the Earth) is the idea that co-evolution tends to encourage this type of inadvertent cooperation between living organisms because groups of organisms, including organisms of multiple species, who form these relationships tend to survive and reproduce more successfully than those that do not.

Thus, over the eons of life on Earth, we might say groups of organisms have learned cooperative, mutually-beneficial behaviors. Since these behaviors are not simply adaptations by a single species, they must have been learned at a higher level. (In the case of the bee/tomato relationship, had the bees vibrated at a different frequency the tomato would have evolved to that frequency, and vice-versa, so the adaptation is not simply of the bees or of the tomato blossoms, but at some higher level). I choose to call this level the mini-Gaia of the bees and tomatoes.

Extending this to, say, the ecology surrounding a semi-isolated pond or island or valley, etc., where millions or billions of individual plants, insects and animals of hundreds or thousands of different species interact in a complex food chain of cooperation and competition, the "formula" for ecological balance is clearly at a higher level than any individual organism or species.

I consider that a higher level of mini-Gaia. The island-Gaia or pond-Gaia behaves as if it had a goal of self-preservation. Indeed, if a neighboring jurisdiction has an ecological failure, the more succesful mini-Gaia(s) will send invaders that may colonize the failed area with a more balanced ecology, equivalent to the reproduction of a mini-Gaia! If the failed jurisdiction is settled by a combination of life forms from two or more neighboring jurisdictions, that is kind of like sexual reproduction, is it not?

If it turns out to be the case that the biosphere of the Earth (which can be thought of as the Congress of all the mini-Gaias of different levels) has evolved the ability to moderate climate change by controlling cloud formation and/or other natural phenomena, we might say that the Gaia is equivalent to a sentient organism intent on self-preservation and -who knows- reproduction on Earth-like planets in other galaxies, see The Hawking Plan (my free online novel).

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

Since the blossoms are so undiscriminating as to accept an electric toothbrush in place of a bee, I think we have to question the whole concept of evolution and Gaia. It looks as though we can phase machines into the natural world with no gripes from Gaia. Assuming that you don't produce monster mutant tomatoes that eat the Villages and all its inhabitants.

Ira Glickstein said...

Good point Joel. But another way to look at it is that the tomato-Gaia, frustrated in Her attempts to get bees through the screening on my impenetrable bird cage, has recruited me (a non-literal believer) to become Her humble servant in the tomato blossom sex department, in return for fresh-picked tomatoes over the coming months.

This seems like a win-win for all of us. Just as the old-fashioned media and we traditional conservatives have had to adopt modern technology, the ancient tomato-Gaia has recruited humans (and their electric toothbrushes) to her service. She has generated multiple postings on the World Wide Web, now including mine, with instructions on how best to serve Her.

And what about the possibility that She anticipated tomato plants being cultivated within screened enclosures and therefore somehow influenced the electric toothbrush-Gaia on the choice of the vibrational frequency? Do not underestimate the power of the tomato-Gaia! Keep in mind She is but a teeny-tiny mini-Goddess within the gargantuan Congress of mini-Gaias that make up the Gaia of the Earth.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

The question may be moot, since I haven't seen a productive anti-gravity tomato plant yet. The ones I've seen in Michigan are very poor producers compared to the ones in tomato cages. Maybe bees can't fly upside down.

Ira Glickstein said...

I don't know yet about the productivity of Topsy-Turvey upside-down tomato plants vs regular ones. I have five regulars, outside the bird cage, that are growing in wire cages with a net over the whole thing to reduce damage from birds who love to peck at the tomatoes when they get red. My one Topsy-Turvey was purchased because my wife saw a Walgreen's advert and I wanted to experiment. It was started about a month later that the others, so it is hard to compare.

What experience have you had, Joel, with Topsy-Turvey in Michigan? Were they in screened porches where they did not have insects to help with pollination? Did they have as much sun as the regular tomatoes?

Fortunately, I grow tomatoes mainly for the fun of it and the thrill of picking and eating a tomato within a single minute. (Back in New York when we grew corn, we would get the water boiling before we picked it and it tasted like a different vegge entirely!) Now, with the added enjoyment of sexual encounters with the tomato blossoms, I don't care how many tomatoes we get :^)

Ira Glickstein

PS: Unless you are a commercial farmer, as were our neighbors in NY when we lived on the farm, it is far less work and cheaper to buy farm products in the store, and they are often as good or better than home-grown. I guess the only benefit of home-grown is that you did it and saw the whole process personally. Kind of like when we go to the hill by the Chatham Rec. Center to watch the Space Shuttle launches. All you see is a pair of bright rocket exhausts and a contrail, and only for a minute or so, but IT IS REAL AND PERSONAL, and Vi takes photos. The images on TV are so much closer and better, but they are not personal. They are not home-grown.

joel said...

Unfortunately my experience involves people who may have very different talents for this sort of thing. My son-in-law's anti-gravity tomatoes were not in the same location as his regular tomatoes. He's more of a chicken raiser from Texas than a Michigan farmer. Besides that, being from the south, he hasn't adjusted to the short growing season of Michigan. Out of fifteen plants I think he managed to get a couple of dozen cherry tomatoes. A fellow camper has had good luck every year with cages while his neighbor had a very puny crop with his anti-gravity device. The tomatoes are beautiful, but barely ripen before the first frost. I don't think one can draw any conclusions from these uncontrolled experiments. It's a bit like a high school science project that I judged at the local science fair. Some poor kid tested the hypothesis that microwaves escape from ovens and placed two plants near the oven (indoors) and two on the back porch (in partial sun). Guess which plants died?

Howard Pattee said...

The tomato was an early case of science being perverted by politics. Scientifically (botanically), a tomato is a fruit: the ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant.

In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed a duty on vegetables but not on fruits. This caused loss of revenue. So the U.S. Supreme Court on May 10, 1893 declared that the tomato is a vegetable.

Ira Glickstein said...

Great information Howard! According to Wikipedia, the US Supremes (in 1893) ruled tomatoes a vegetable, but "The holding of the case applies only to the interpretation of the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883, and the court did not purport to reclassify the tomato for botanical or other purpose."

Ain't it great how the government can, in order to increase tax revenues, over-rule the established botanical category that a tomato is a fruit because it has internal seeds that can be planted and succesfully grown. (I'm surprised they haven't ruled that Pi = 3.0 to make engineering calculations easier.)

Yet, there is something to the culinary usage of the tomato, generally eaten with meals, like a vegetable, rather than as dessert, like a fruit. Conversely, the banana is a fruit by culinarily usage even though the seeds of commercial bananas are sterile.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Cucumbers are also fruits botanically, but gastronomically of course are vegetables. Being more of an eater than a grower. I think I'll stick with the common gastronomical usage. As for having sex with blossoms, I think an electric shaver might be closer in frequency to a bee than a toothbrush.

Ira Glickstein said...

Perhaps, Joel, an electric shaver is closer to bee buzz frequency, but how would I know, I haven't owned an electric shaver for decades. I only have to shave a bit on my cheeks and neck and I use one of those disposable plastic handled things, and that lasts for over a month!

In any case, it appears that the Tomato-Gaia has also used Her vast influence with the Electric Shaver-Gaia and they, together with the Electric Toothbrush-Gaia, are only three of the thousands of mini-Gaias in the Pantheon of the Earth-Gaia.

So, WATCH OUT! (Or you may find yourself buzzing when you intend to speak.:^)

Ira Glickstein