Gender Inflorescence: a project about plants and their identity

by alpha kartsaki & Haris Saslis

picture: Zeynel Cebeci, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A diary of our process 

The inspiration

Almost a year ago, in September 2021, Haris and I went for a hike through the Lissos gorge in the southwest of Crete, Greece. The weather was extremely warm and dry and there was one plant which, to my surprise, was blossoming everywhere. I found it fascinating: this specific plant had not only managed to survive this climate, but it also blossomed! Haris, who is a botanist, explained that this plant, the sea squill or Drimia maritima, is very special: it blossoms at the end of the summer, when everything else is dry, and it forms its leaves after having flowered, during the winter, when all other plants have already shed their leaves. We started a very vivid discussion about the world of plants, and the diversity in nature. During the same trip, we had been exchanging thoughts on gender and its diversity. Soon, we came up with the idea of working together on a joint project exploring plants and their gender.

Why gender inflorescence?

Gender is a spectrum; there are a lot of different gender expressions and all of them are valid. Gender has to do with one’s identity and is something every person can define for themselves.

In the plant realm, it is challenging to talk about self-identification and self-definition. How can we then talk about gender in plants? Our aim is to research plant gender, using botanical observations on reproduction, but also looking at other plant traits that define their identity: how do they communicate with other plants? How do they change their behaviour or morphology in order to attract pollinators? etc.

Scholars have long highlighted that studying the reproduction biology of plants makes more sense at the individual, rather than at the species level (Bawa & Beach, 1981). Hence, defining the gender of a whole plant species is imperfect, because each individual will express a slightly different version of that gender. This means that even within gender categories, individuals express a diversity of genders, creating a great spectrum of plant gender that encompasses a huge gender diversity. 

In botany, diversity is crucial for adaptation and survival. By having different traits, plants can better adapt to different environments. Generating and maintaining diversity ensures that plants can keep surviving when exposed to different conditions. Gender is no exception. Different genders within the plant gender spectrum can be beneficial to plants in different environments. Evolution generates gender diversity, and we wish to explore it, document it, celebrate it. 

Inflorescence means: a. the arrangement of flowers on a plant, and b. the process of flowering.

We have chosen this word as a part of our title because we liked the double-meaning and also the dynamic character. The arrangement of flowers on a plant in space and time can draw parallels to arranging plant gender in the gender spectrum. The process of flowering underlines the action of flowering as something dynamic and vibrant, something which can change through time. Similarly, plant gender can be considered as a dynamic process, which can vary from time to time and from individual to individual. 

Anthropocentricity and cis male perspective in research

The challenges 

“The fundamental problem is that our academic disciplines are all rooted in Western culture, which discriminates against diversity.”

Roughgarden, 2004

Linneaus, one of the most important figures in botany since the 18th century, used in his writings a highly anthropocentric language. Referring to plant reproductive parts as “andria” and “gynia” (in Greek: „men“ and „women“) and using terms such as “ovarium” and “testiculos”, he heterosexualised plants and described the pollination as a sexual act:

“The actual petals of the flower (…) serve only as Bridal beds that the great Creator has so gloriously provided, adorned, with many delightful fragrances, where the bridegroom and his bride may celebrate their Nuptials with so much greater solemnity. Now that the bed has been thus prepared, it is time for the Bridegroom to embrace his beloved Bride and offer her his gifts. By this I mean that one sees how the testicles open and pour fourth pulverem genitalem (the generative powder), which falls on the tubam (the tube) and fertilises ovarium (the ovary).”

Linneaus, 1729

Even though most plants are hermaphrodite, Linneaus did not consider creating a third category (next to „male“ and „female“) but described hermaphrodite plants as ones which have the “male” and “female” parts in the same flower. Linneaus‘ perspective and writings have certainly influenced the way people perceive gender in plants and beyond. The application of a very polarised binary model used to describe nature could give the impression that the binary is something natural. On the other hand, Linneaus‘ writings might have also contributed to a view of the world which allows some movement outside the strict categories. As Maja Bondestam argues:

“Linnean botany also staked a space for a claim of dissonance – for anatomical hermaphroditism, disrupted categories and manifold and non normative sexual encounters – and created a stimulating zone that would make unexpected relations, actions and encounters stand out as possible, albeit and unconventional. With the new botany, the vegetable kingdom, and to some extent also human sex categories and sexual unions, had a queer dimension that is perhaps more difficult to digest today than it was for people in the 18th century.”

Bondestam, 2016

Our challenge is: how can we explore nature without projecting our own ideas on it? In this case, how can we talk about the gender in plants without being anthropocentric, without taking humans as a reference point, without referring to the plants as “male” or “female”?

Gender beyond reproduction

When it comes to gender, botany research mainly focuses on reproduction. It is true that observing how plants reproduce is an act which is concrete, measurable and clear to define. Nevertheless, gender is for us so much more than reproductive parts and strategies: it is identity and it is behaviour. 

Our challenge is: how can we study the identity of plants when most of the information we have is about reproduction? During our work, we have been constantly asking ourselves what parts of plant behaviour stretch beyond reproductive strategies and reproduction itself. Are traits such as colours, potent scents and intricate, specialised structures linked strictly to reproduction, or are they also part of individual identity/expression? 

Our research goal

Our main interest in this project is to explore the realm of plants, find out about their identity, embrace and celebrate their diversity. Our intention is not to define what is natural or not. 

We document the gender of specific plants which we find interesting, making „portraits“ that contain the information we consider relevant in terms of their identity. In doing so, we aim to shed light on different parts of the plant gender spectrum. Our objective is not an exhaustive record of this spectrum, but a demonstration of the vast space that it encompasses.

An example „portrait“: the water lily

(picture: Srisar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via  Wikimedia Commons)
  • blooms as “female” on first day, closes and reopens the following day as “male” (a kind of gender fluid)
  • attracts beetles as pollinators through vivid colours or strong scents
  • communicates chemically with its community about threats through hormones
  • has leaves & flowers that are mobile, roots that are in the water
  • is connected to purity, enlightenment, and the divine

 Fun facts

  • Some orchids copy the look and pheromones of female bees in order to attract male bees. This is called deceptive pollination strategy, as plants trick pollinators in order to attract them.
  • Many ferns have an asexual phase in their life.
  • Victoria amazonica (giant Amazon water lily) can regulate the temperature of their flowers and use this in order to attract beetles. 
  • The flowers of the night-blooming jasmine, Cestrum nocturnum, open only during night time. In order to attract pollinators, the flowers release a very strong scent which can reach a range of 100-120m. The colour is also intentionally white so that the flowers can be visible in the dark.

Presentation ideas

  • Identification key game: a game in the space for the audience, where people are asked to explore the gender of specific plants through answering questions. According to the answer (yes or no) they move to a different square. This presentation idea aims to underline complexity in gender: how many questions do I have to ask in order to find out the gender?
  • Audio walk:
    a. Outdoors (with existing plants, depending on the place and time of the year of the performance)
    b. Indoors (with flashlights in a dark space where the audience “discovers” the plants)
  • Herbarium specimen installation: a dynamic depiction of the gender spectrum of specific plants in the space using pictures of pressed specimens – Aufstellung
  • Stop-motion film or thumb book which depicts one single plant which changes a lot through its life.

Bibliography 

Bawa K. S. and Beach J. H., Evolution of Sexual Systems in Flowering Plants. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 254-274., 1981

Bondestam M., When the Plant Kingdom Became Queer: On Hermaphrodites and the Linnaean Language of Nonnormative Sex. In: Bull, J., Fahlgren, M. (eds) Illdisciplined Gender. Crossroads of Knowledge. Springer, Cham, 2016.

Campos L., Mutant Sexuality: The Private Life of a Plant from the book Making Mutations: Objects, Practices, contexts by Luis Campos and Alexander von Schwerin (eds.), Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2010.

Fara P., Sex, Botany, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (Revolutions in Science), Columbia University Press, 2004.

Innis Dagg A., Smitten by Giraffe: My Life as a Citizen Scientist Scientist, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021.

Linneaus C., Prelude to betrothal of plants, Uppsala 1729.

https://www.queerbotany.com/

Roughgarden J., Evolution’s Rainbow. Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in nature and people, University of California Press, 2004.

Schiebinger L., Nature’s Body: Sexual politics and the Making of Modern Science, Rivers Oram Press, 1994. 


alpha kartsaki is a musician, performance maker and visual artist. In 2015 she founded the collective PRAGMATA, which won the Zitty Berlin Award for the production Theaterautomat, listed in the top ten 2016 Berlin productions. She has also won the BE Festival Audience Award, UK (2016) and the Champ Libre Award, UK (2017). Alpha was a member of music ensembles ‚my sister grenadine‘ and Phoneyisland Cabaret Orchestra and released her debut solo album in 2015. She has performed in Berliner Ensemble, Neuköllner Oper, HAU, Sophiensaele, amongst others. She co-curated the festival Klang der Dinge at the Schaubude Berlin in 2019. She has worked as an assistant director, production manager and stage manager at Neuköllner Oper and Volksbühne Berlin and has exhibited her drawings nationally and internationally. She has received large-scale commissions from Berliner Senat and Fonds Darstellende Künste. @alphakar

Haris Saslis is an evolutionary biologist, specialising in botany. He has conducted research in various international universities and botanic gardens. He has co-authored several research articles in a variety of scientific journals. In 2013, he was awarded The John C Marsden Medal of the Linnean Society of London, awarded annually to the author of the best doctoral thesis in biology carried out whilst registered at any UK institution. Since moving away from academia, he has run nature tours in Greece, guiding visitors through natural landscapes and talking about the local flora, its uses and properties, as well as biodiversity conservation challenges. He is part of the organising committee of the upcoming conference Bridges between disciplines: Gender in STEM and Social Sciences (https://bridges2022.com/), which aims to discuss issues of gender under- and mis-representation in academia.