Strolling through one of the vast spruce-fir forests in north America on a sunny summer’s day, you might think that, in the green world around you, nothing ever happens in a rush.
However, researchers have discovered that the bunchberry dogwood plant (Cornus canadensis), which carpets the ground of these forests, doesn’t dawdle when it comes to flower opening. Using a high-speed video camera, researchers have shown that the bunchberry flower can open its petals, catapulting its pollen into the air, in under 0.4 milliseconds!1,2 That’s faster than the leap of spittle bugs / froghoppers (0.5–1.0 milliseconds),3,4 the strike of the mantis shrimp (2.7 milliseconds),5,6 the opening of Impatiens / ‘touch-me-not’ fruits (2.8–5.8 milliseconds),2 the strike of a chameleon’s tongue (50 milliseconds),7,8 and the snap of venus flytraps (100 milliseconds).9,10
‘Most people think of plants as stationary and sedentary,’ said Joan Edwards, one of the researchers. ‘We were even surprised how fast this flower opens.’11 Indeed they were. The researchers had started out using a high-speed video camera that takes 1,000 pictures every second—but the images were blurred, indicating the camera was too slow! It was only when they used a superfast camera that takes 10,000 pictures every second that they were able to capture on film exactly what happens when a bunchberry flower ‘explodes’.12
As the flowers burst open, the petals quickly (within the first 0.2 milliseconds) separate and flip back, out of the way of the pollen-bearing stamens. The stamens then unfurl and accelerate at 2,400 times that due to gravity—approximately 800 times the force astronauts experience during take-off—catapulting the pollen granules into the air ‘to an impressive height of 2.5 cm’ (1 inch). While this at first might not sound like much, the flowers are only a few millimetres tall (less than 1/10 of an inch). So it’s been said that an equivalent achievement for us would be throwing a rock onto the top of a six-storey building!11
Actually, people have indeed learned to achieve such feats—through the use of tools such as the trebuchet, a specialized projectile-launcher used in medieval wars.13 The trebuchet is ingeniously designed, using principles of physics (leverage) to propel objects (and sometimes, reportedly, an unfortunate negotiator14) much further and faster than would a simple catapult.
It turns out that the bunchberry stamens resemble, and function as, miniature trebuchets. The payload (pollen in the anther) is attached to the throwing arm (filament) by a flexible ‘hinge’ connecting the anther to the filament tip. After the petals open, the bent filaments unfold, releasing elastic energy, and the rotation of the anther about the filament tip accelerates pollen to its maximum vertical speed then releases it, flinging the pollen upward.2
Surely, given the medieval trebuchet was intelligently designed, then so too was the bunchberry flower? (And the Designer of the bunchberry flower thought of it first!) In fact, the researchers’ paper in the journal Nature apparently couldn’t help but use such language: ‘Bunchberry stamens are designed like miniature medieval trebuchets …’2 [our emphasis].
It’s certainly difficult to imagine how each of the floral components could have possibly come together in working synchrony through step-by-step evolution. ‘Petals open independently of stamen activity,’15 the researchers point out—but why would there have been a need for rapid petal opening if the fully-functioning stamen ‘trebuchet’ was not already in place? Conversely, a rapid-fire pollen launcher would be useless if the petals didn’t spring open in time.16
All of this points (Romans 1:20) to the logical conclusion that the bunchberry’s ‘bang’ did not come about by accident.