by Whit Gibbons

May 8, 2016

Q: Around Mother's Day you have sometimes written about how humans do not have a monopoly on taking care of their young and that many other animals demonstrate maternal care as well. What about plants? Do plants exhibit parental care?

A: Absolutely. No organisms on earth will exist long as a species if they do not have mechanisms to offer the best survival possibilities for their offspring. When you look around in any natural habitat, you will see only those plants and animals whose ancestors did the things that were in the best interest of their progeny. This does not mean there was forethought or emotion involved, but the formula is a basic one - when your babies are not taken care of, you will have no descendants.

To clarify, maternal care means the contribution is from the mother whereas paternal care is from the father. Parental care can include either or both parents, and the distinction between which one is a greater contributor may be debatable.

Our natural tendency is to think of maternal care in terms we can relate to as humans, such as mammal mothers providing milk to babies for nourishment. Parental care is exemplified by cardinals and bluebirds in which both sexes feed the young, both in the nest and after they fledge. But animals take care of their offspring in myriad ways. So do plants.

We have all seen parental care by plants, usually without even recognizing it as such. An outstanding example is the coconut. Coconut palm trees are found on tropical beaches around the world and are some of the best parents imaginable. The seed is encased in the coconut shell with a layer of nutritious tissue (the white stuff we call coconut meat) and even a supply of water inside. When a coconut lands on a beach under all of the right conditions, the seed germinates (from one of those three little coconut "eyes") and begins its life with an ample supply of food and water. Although both mammologists and botanists will decry the analogy, we might even consider coconut palms to be plants that nourish their young with milk.

Like animals, plant parents provide for their young in various ways. For example, plants have edible fruit that animals eat, but the seeds pass right through and are deposited elsewhere. Cedar waxwings eat mistletoe berries from the plants on one tree and distribute the seeds during migration as they perch on tree limbs elsewhere. A box turtle or possum would never pass up a ripe muscadine grape or plum on the ground. The seeds may not end up too far away, but they are ready to germinate when they leave the animal and are not likely to be near enough to the parent plant to compete with it for nutrients in the soil. Thus the plants have provided their progeny with an opportunity to travel and thrive.

Producing seeds that end up far from the parent is a strategy (though not a conscious one) of many plants because of the advantages of reducing competition with the parents. Dandelions are notorious for giving their offspring opportunities to invade not just your yard but also your neighbor's. The yellow dandelion develops into a white flower head composed of dozens of tiny snowflake-like seeds that are wafted away with the first good wind. Plants with wind dispersal of seeds are caring for their young in a sense by getting them away from a place to avoid local overpopulation.

Many other parallels can be seen between parental care by animals and that by plants. Can we declare which species make the best mothers? No. But Mother's Day is appropriately reserved for one species because of a key difference that makes us distinctive. Like other species, human mothers take care of their offspring; but later those offspring often end up taking care of the mothers. No other animal or plant does that.

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