In the 1960s, author and future Cosmopolitan magazine Editor Helen Gurley Brown scandalized the country with her book about independent single women called “Sex and the Single Girl.”
Not that it is a controversial topic, but this week I would like to turn the tables and take a look at some of the “birds and the bees” activity that goes on in the garden.
This is especially important in the vegetable and fruit realm, since reproduction is why we get tomatoes, peppers, apples, plums and such in the first place.
Whether you knew it or not, flowers are not just different in appearance from plant to plant, but the ways in which they are pollinated and turn into fruit are different as well.
Some plants have what are called “perfect” flowers where both male and female parts are present, such as roses, apples and dandelions. Other flowers are “incomplete,” meaning that they have separate male and female flowers.
Some plants with “incomplete” flowers are called dioecious (Greek, meaning “two households”), and have distinct male and female plants such as ginkgo trees, holly bushes and kiwi vines. Some “incomplete” plants are monoecious and have distinct but separate male and female flowers on one plant — like squash, cucumbers and corn.
So, here’s where the vegetable garden comes in — one of the questions that I get every year without fail has something to do with why most of the flowers on a squash or cucumber or other cucurbit (that’s what we call plants in this family) plant do not produce fruit.
In answer, I have to explain that about half or more of the flowers on the plant are male and are, unfortunately, anatomically incapable of producing fruit.
There are a few ways to tell male and female flowers apart when it comes to members of the cucurbit family.
First, look at the base of the flower. If the base is swollen and looks like it is a tiny version of the mature fruit, then it is a female flower.
If the base is just a straight stem (in flowers, this stem is called a peduncle), then it is a male flower.
The second method is to look inside the flower. If there is one large central structure, called the pistil, that indicates the flower is female.
Male flowers will have several, smaller stamens inside. Female flowers also tend to be larger than male flowers.
In the world of the single, available female squash blossom, life revolves around attracting honey and other native bees that have also recently visited male flowers to assure pollen transfer.
All members of the cucurbit family require this pollination tango to make sure that the female flowers produce fruit.
Each species and even variety of squash have a different ratio of male to female flowers. The ratio is usually about 1-to-1, but it is not unusual to see varieties with many more males than females.
Many of the plants also produce an abundance of male flowers early in the season, sort of as a teaser to make sure bees are attracted to the plant later on to pollinate the female plants.
So if a majority of flowers die early in the season without setting fruit, or about half of the flowers die throughout the season, there is nothing to worry about.
If female flowers are dying throughout the season without producing fruit, though, there is a definite problem. This means that there are no bees available to pollinate the plants.
If fruits have shrunken parts or misshapen, then there could be an issue of incomplete pollination from not having bees around. This could result from not having enough food for them in the area to encourage their presence, or from weather being too cool or wet for bees to get out and pollinate.
The lack of bees could also be the result of improper use of pesticides in the area.
If it seems like the birds and the bees aren’t happening in your garden, there are ways that you can ensure fruitfulness by taking matters into your own hands.
Transferring pollen from male flowers to female flowers can be accomplished using a small artist’s paintbrush or by simply pulling off a male flower and using it to apply pollen directly.
Gardeners who want to save seeds from plants in this family should also pollinate flowers by hand, and actually go so far as to protect the female flower from outside pollen using some sort of cover.
Believe it or not, several members of the squash family that look or taste nothing alike are the same species and can cross-pollinate. For example: Zucchini, summer squash, pumpkins, scallop squash, decorative gourds and acorn squash are all in the species Cucurbita pepo and can cross with each other.
You won’t see a difference in the fruit from this growing season, but if you save seeds you could end up with a cross that may not look or taste all that appetizing. If your zucchini, say, crossed with a pumpkin, would you end up with a Puccini? That would make for an interesting pie.
And don’t forget: If you do have an overabundance of male flowers, they are edible too. You can put them in a casserole, fry them, stuff them and more.