Journal article Open Access

Pollen Dispersal by Catapult: Experiments of Lyman J. Briggs on the Flower of Mountain Laurel

Nimmo, John R.; Hermann, Paula M.; Kirkham, M. B.; Landa, Edward R.

The flower of Kalmia latifolia L. employs a catapult mechanism that flings its pollen to considerable distances. Physicist Lyman J. Briggs investigated this phenomenon in the 1950s after retiring as longtime director of the National Bureau of Standards, attempting to explain how hydromechanical effects inside the flower's stamen could make it possible. Briggs's unfinished manuscript implies that liquid under negative pressure generates stress, which, superimposed on the stress generated from the flower's growth habit, results in force adequate to propel the pollen as observed. With new data and biophysical understanding to supplement Briggs's experimental results and research notes, we show that his postulated negative-pressure mechanism did not play the exclusive and crucial role that he credited to it, though his revisited investigation sheds light on various related processes. Important issues concerning the development and reproductive function of Kalmia flowers remain unresolved, highlighting the need for further biophysical advances.

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