Plant that keeps switching sex is the first to be recognised as ‘gender fluid’

A PLANT that baffled scientists by repeatedly changing gender is the first to be called “sexually fluid”.

A single Dungowan Bush Tomato plant can vary between male, female or neither.

The Dungowan Bush Tomato is the first plant to be recognised as 'gender fluid'
The Dungowan Bush Tomato is the first plant to be recognised as ‘gender fluid’

It has confused botanists since it was first discovered in the Australian outback in the 1970s.

But DNA analysis has now proved it is a distinct species with a “non-binary” gender.

It has been given the Latin name Solanum plastisexum, meaning plastic or changeable sex.

Around 85 per cent of the Earth’s quarter of a million plant species have flowers that are bisexual.

This means they have both male and female sexual organs present in every blossom.

Others have single sex flowers or whole plants that are either male or female, like cannabis.

But the new plant, a relative of the aubergine, can change its sex several times throughout its life.

It has a single stem, with purple flowers and yellow fruit, and stands 80cm (2ft 7in) tall.

You never know what you’ll get when you come across it

Prof Chris Martine, Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, US

It has been named by Prof Chris Martine and colleagues at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, US.

He said: “For the most part, a given plant species will stick to one primary and predictable type of sexual expression.

“But what makes Solanum plastisexum stand out is that it is one of a just a few plants that kind of do it all.

“It really seems like you never know what you’ll get when you come across it.”

He added: “This name, for us, is not just a reflection of the diversity of sexual forms seen in this species.

“It is also a recognition that this plant is a model for the sort of sexual fluidity that is present across the Plant Kingdom – where just about any sort of reproductive form one can imagine is present.

“In a way, S. plastisexum is not just a model for the diversity of sexual/reproductive form seen among plants.

“It is also evidence that attempts to recognise a ‘normative’ sexual condition among the planet’s living creatures is problematic.

“When considering the scope of life on Earth, the notion of a constant sexual binary consisting of two distinct and disconnected forms is, fundamentally, a fallacy.”

The characteristics that define it as a new species are described in the journal PhytoKeys.

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