The birds and the bees — and other things about plant sex.

(The following is an actual experience I had in mid-April of last year.)

My gosh, they grow so fast! It seems like just yesterday, my tomato plants popped through the soil. Soon they began talking — to me, anyway. And then this morning, I got the question from one of the eldest, an Orange Icicle Tomato, “Where did I come from?”

I had been preparing myself for this question since I planted them. I’m not one to lie to my plants, even about sensitive issues like this.

“Well, my little one, you come from a seed?”

The Orange Icicle tilted its leaves. I couldn’t tell if that was because it was pondering its next question. Or if it was because of the oscillating fan I had placed near the plants to strengthen their stems for the winds they would soon be experiencing outside.

Either way, the seedling asked the obvious next question, “What’s a seed?”

I answered, “A seed contains the earliest form of you, along with a little food for you to begin growing and a protective coat that knows when it’s the right time to open up so you can begin growing.”

The seedling stayed silent but shot me the expression demanding I go on.

“You see, the seed coating, when there’s enough moisture and warmth, knows when to break apart to let you shoot your roots down to create your own food from the water and nutrients in the soil you are living in right now. After your roots have you securely in place, you make your way through the soil above to pop through and make you the plant you are today.”

“Okay, I’ve got things so far. But where did the seed come from?”

Well, now we were truly in the territory of “the birds and the bees” questioning. I was going to have to talk about sex. My face reddened a bit, blushing as I do every year as these questions come up. This year, I blushed even more as I realized that all the other plants were quiet and intently listening in on the conversation.

Noticing this was important, I remembered to cover the two answers for this question. One for the self-pollinating plants I was talking directly to today. But I also wanted them to know more about the plants they would soon be growing near outside.

“Okay, so for all of you — tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, alike — you do something called self-pollinating. Your adult plants’ flowers have both mommy and daddy parts. The daddy parts make food called pollen. The pollen falls into the mommy parts which eventually make the seeds that will, given the right conditions, make another Orange Icicle plant.

I could tell my seedlings were a bit confused, so I restated some easy parts and added a bit more: “When you grow old enough, your flowers will have mommy and daddy parts. Those parts will make vegetables that have enough seeds to make many more plants like you. Don’t get too caught up in confusing words, but it’s a process called self-pollination.”

A pepper plant yelled out the obvious next question, which I must have murmured a couple of days before as I was getting ready for this conversation: “Where do the birds and the bees come in?”

“Well, my friend, some plants — like winter squash and zucchini — aren’t like you. Each of their flowers don’t have both mommy and daddy parts. They need to produce food on or around the daddy and mommy parts for what are called pollinators — bees, birds, butterflies, moths, and many more insects. Those insects collect pollen (a food called a protein) from one flower and drink nectar (a food called a carbohydrate) from different flowers. Some of the pollen taken from a daddy part falls on the mommy part of another flower — usually on a different plant — to start forming the vegetables that contain the seeds for future plants like you.”

Some of the younger plants didn’t understand everything I said, but the conversation mentally spent me. I let them know that I would explain it all again soon. I also told them that I would describe why I always called them heirloom plants — an important and related question.

What I decided I would never tell any of them is that so many of their eventual vegetables would someday end up in my belly, never letting the seeds be around for new plants’ futures.


Joyfully married to Rebecca. Friend to my pup, Luca. Passionate about justice. Love gardening, blogging, and dark chocolate.

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