virgin birthing

In a recent article written by National Geographic, a female python in captivity, Thelma, gave virgin birth to 6 (half-clone!) baby snakes in 2012. Only recently has the DNA confirmed that no male has ever been present in the making of these hatchlings. This phenomenon of virgin birthing in nature is called “parthenogenesis,” which basically means that these creatures were able to self-fertilize or reproduce asexually. (Harry Potter fans out there, I can’t get “parthel tongue” out of my head. Which is totally what Thelma the snake speaks, with a lisp.)

My introduction to the concept of “parthenogenesis” happened over a decade ago when I was writing a paper for a biology class. I had grown tired of writing the same old standard science papers, so I decided to turn in a paper that was half science, half sultry romance. At the time, Jerry Springer was a big name on television and the concept of parthenogenesis fit in quite well into a “who’s the daddy” type of drama.  I remember being handed back the graded paper and written in giant red across the top, it said: “Ms. Greenman- See me after class!!!”

I walked into the office after class and was commanded to SIT DOWN. So I did, thinking that I might be receiving an F-. It took me a while to look into her eyes and when I did, I saw a face beaming with entertainment. She looked at me for a few seconds and with a laugh, got up with chalk in hand and made me sit through a lecture on the juicy particulars I had missed in the Jerry Springer scenario and then told me re-write the paper to include what I had just learned.

She sent me that national geographic article this morning with a note: “Perhaps this will help contribute ideas towards the nature novel you need to write.”

What does this have to do with apples? Well, let me try to tie this all together (since this is an apple blog, after all).  In the horticultural world, we have a similar term called “Parthenocarpy,” which literally means “virgin fruit,” and refers to fruit which is developed in absence of fertilization. These fruits are naturally seedless and, basically, they are freaks in nature. Just like Thelma the python.

Lee Calhoun writes about an apple called Bloomless, Seedless, Coreless in his book, Old Southern Apples, but it turns out not to be seedless, and actually has two cores.  Still, TIME magazine wrote an article in 1941 about a discovered coreless apple:

“The first coreless, seedless apples known to science were discovered only last year. Weighing a plump quarter-pound each, they grow on a freak tree in Mrs. Libbie Wilcox’s backyard in Huntington Park, Calif.

This week the Department of Agriculture is working with the tree in the hope of making seedless apples as commonplace as seedless oranges. Since there are no seeds to plant, the new fruit must be propagated by grafts on normal apple trees.”

To the extent of my knowledge, this project was not successful (or else they are being kept where the fertile mules live). It makes sense for these apples to be quite rare, because it’s the apple tree’s #1 job to disperse seed. If an insect gets into an apple, it’s often headed straight for the seeds. Once those seeds are eaten, the tree notices that the apple can no longer do it’s job in growing future apple trees and (literally) lets it go. Apple trees don’t like free loaders, either.

So there, I’ve brought it back to apples. I’d love to find that apple written about in TIME magazine, though. Would be nice to add to the collection.

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