Plants need pollinators like people need one another. Pollinators are the powerhouses that lift pollen from one plant to another, spurring reproduction, because plant “moms” can’t exactly walk around and find plant “dads.” In nature, plants and pollinators are co-located. The habitat in which the plant grows is the same one its pollinator calls home. Quietly and often unnoticed, the plants and pollinators maintain this vital relationship.

But what happens when people decide to move plants to a new, far-away place?

Humans have found uses for plants and have uprooted them for journeys across oceans. As a result, many plants have become separated from their ideal pollinators. One example: the vanilla orchid, which hails from Central America. Vanilla is the only orchid whose edible fruit is commercially valuable. The fruit, or seed pod, formed after pollination, has been collected, dried, and used as a spice for centuries.

For centuries, that specificity allowed the Totonac people of East-Central Mexico to have a monopoly on cultivating the precious spice. That’s because just two insects, Melipona and Euglema bees, are known to pollinate the plant, and they lived within the Totonacs’ land. The Europeans were introduced to vanilla in 1520 and relied on Central American suppliers to produce the spice for three centuries. But in 1793, French colonists smuggled vanilla plants to Réunion, an island just over 100 miles east of Madagascar. Though the plant grew well in this tropical environment, frustratingly, none of its flowers turned to fruits. Four decades later, a Belgian botanist solved the seed pod riddle! The local bees, which transfer pollen to complete the cycle of reproduction, had been left “bee”-hind. Shortly after this discovery, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave in Réunion, developed a way to hand-pollinate vanilla, cutting out the busy, buzzy, left-behind middleman altogether. This method is still used today and has allowed for 75% of all vanilla produced annually to come from Madagascar, far from the plant’s native geographic home.

Whether it is with the help of humans or their pollinator, many plants need a hand reproducing. In nature, vanilla can vine its way up many trees, but always near Melipona and Eulaema bees. Humans had it venture across oceans, away from its pollinator pals, and now must perform the labor-intensive tasks themselves (one reason why vanilla is so pricey). Next time you take a stroll, take a moment to think about how the plants around you interact with their environment and their pollinators.

This blog is part of this year’s Roots: Power of the Unseen  theme, which celebrates the complex world beneath our feet and seeks to inspire a new appreciation for the unnoticed, yet vital parts of our ecosystem.  

About the Author

Patrick Deja is an Educator II at Naples Botanical Garden. When not at the Garden, he loves to spend time with his wife and daughter. He also enjoys traveling and learning, whether it is about plants, history, language, or science.

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