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In communication with Semaa: Exploring floral nectar secretion in Nicotiana rustica

In communication with Semaa: Exploring floral nectar secretion in Nicotiana rustica

by Kennedy Halvorson

Kennedy Halvorson

My MES research partnered with Semaa (Nicotiana rustica; Goodspeed, 1954), a species of wild tobacco, to better understand the dynamics of their nectar secretion and reveal potential pollinator associations. This research is part of Finding Flowers, an interdisciplinary project of Drs. Lisa Myers and Sheila Colla that integrates art, ecology and education within a biocultural approach to native pollinator and plant diversity conservation. In this research, I referred to the plants who made this work possible primarily by their Anishinaabemowin name Semaa, rather than their scientific name Nicotiana rustica. This is purposeful, to recognize their spirit and combat the reductionism innately built into Western knowledge and the scientific method. In many Indigenous creation stories, plants are one of the oldest beings and consequently our earliest teachers, and this naming choice is meant to reflect their knowledge and convey respect. It was also an effort to remove the scientist-subject dynamic and replace it with one of co-creation.

Following Brittany Luby’s (2021) precedent with Manomin, both the Land and Semaa are recognized here as “spirited being(s) worth ethical consideration”, non-human teachers whose ways of knowing deserve respect. This is further necessitated by my positionality as a western researcher – if I care about my Indigenous peers, I must also care about the Land and Semaa, as the “welfare [of Indigenous peoples is] intimately tied to the well-being of other-than-human beings.” (Luby at al., 2021). Luby’s work with Manomin explores how consent works when communication is non-verbal; while Semaa and myself do not necessarily speak the same language, communication was still possible. An early instance includes when the seedlings were stretching high in their trays, their thin, leggy stems reaching upwards, the Semaa was telling me that they needed more sunlight, otherwise they would refuse to produce more leaves. This is how consent was interpreted throughout this research; at any time throughout the experiment that the Semaa communicated their needs and I failed to adequately respond, they could and would withdraw consent.

This interpretation is consistent with Reo’s (2019) definition of consent, which insists consent not be some singular event, but an ongoing process that requires continued thoughtfulness, maintenance, and care. My relationship with Semaa was continuously built up over the growing season, in which we communicated with physical and visual cue. Ultimately 23 participants consented to the night and daytime nectar sampling, with the remaining seven individual’s flowering only after experimental period was complete. It is important to note that the consent process did not stop after the field season was completed; Luby et al. (2021) stresses the importance of waiting until the plants are fully mature and have “lived as full a life as possible”, and thereby consent to being harvested. Seeds and leaves were only taken at the very end of Semaa’s growing season, before they returned to the earth with the first frost. My accountability to Semaa and the Land is something I am continuing to explore after our research.

Semaa is known in Indigenous communities to be the first plant given to First Nations people and is recognized as the main line of communication to the spirit world.

The nectar volume and the amount of sugar available in the Semaa flowers sampled was found to be higher during the nighttime treatment for both the anthesis samples and the samples reflecting 12 hours of nectar replenishment, while the nectar’s sugar concentration was slightly, but non-significantly higher during the day. Nectar volume and concentration was found to be greatest at anthesis, declining as the flowers age, consistent with the existing literature (Silva et al., 2018). These findings confirm that some nectar attributes will vary significantly depending on the time of day the flower is visited. Nighttime visitors of Semaa can expect to find larger volumes of nectar present and consequently more sugar available to consume. As there was no significant difference in the sugar concentration of nectar across treatments, this suggests that the flowers produce nectar at a consistent concentration, controlling instead how much they secrete in response to the time of day.

This research, taken in concert with the existing literature, adds to the ever-growing picture of Semaa’s network of associations. While high nectar concentrations were observed at anthesis, the average nectar concentrations across the sample population reflected concentrations more consistent with the preferences of hummingbirds, moths, and butterflies. The higher nighttime volumes of nectar recorded may be related to or causal of the larger amounts of scent released at night observed in previous studies (Raguso et al., 2003). Hypothetically, as Semaa flowers do not close throughout the duration of their lifetime, the plant may accept the visitation of pollinators undaunted by the higher nicotine concentrations the plant releases during the day to deter florivores, but then attempt to actively attract potential nighttime visitors with more nectar and more nectar sugars, advertising these wares through greater amounts of scent and distinct and attractive odour profiles. This postulation could be confirmed or rejected entirely by a study dedicated to observing Semaa’s floral visitors across time. Anecdotally, Bombus centralis, a long-tongued species of bumble bee, was observed many times actively drinking nectar from Semaa flowers throughout the experiment.

In Indigenous research methodologies where participants consider Semaa to be sacred, the offering of these plants is meant to represent the respect and gratitude necessary to meaningfully engage in research (Wilson & Restoule, 2010). The acceptance of such an offering represents the consent necessary to begin the research, to do the research in a good way (Wilson & Restoule, 2010). Semaa mediates communication, a role in which they are well-versed, having facilitated discussions on Turtle Island since its inception. It is important to note that these discussions are not limited to those between humans; Semaa is sacred because of their ability to connect the physical and spiritual worlds (Wilson & Restoule, 2010). In this research and the research upon which it is built, we see Semaa in constant, distinctly non-human modes of communication with all that exists around them. I am grateful to have been privy to one such mode, and to share it here.

Kennedy Halvorson completed her research in the Native Pollinator Research Lab, focusing on pollination systems of Nicotiana rustica, a wild species of tobacco that has cultural and traditional significance to many Indigenous peoples across Canada. She currently works as research assistant for Finding Flowers and on the Food Policy for Canada project with Dr. Roderick MacRae that seeks a path towards a healthy, just, and sustainable food system.