Physics in Perspective

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 371–389 | Cite as

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

  • John R. NimmoEmail author
  • Paula M. Hermann
  • M. B. Kirkham
  • Edward R. Landa


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.


Biomechanics biophysics Lyman J. Briggs Kalmia latifolia elastic properties catapult negative pressure pollen dispersal botany plant-water relations 



We are grateful to Dr. Alarich Kress (Munich Botanical Garden, retired) and to Dr. Richard C. Keating (Missouri Botanical Garden) for detailed information on the flower of Kalmia latifolia.


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Copyright information

© Springer Basel (outside the USA) 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • John R. Nimmo
    • 1
    Email author
  • Paula M. Hermann
    • 2
  • M. B. Kirkham
    • 3
  • Edward R. Landa
    • 4
  1. 1.U.S. Geological SurveyMenlo ParkUSA
  2. 2.Departamento de Biología, Bioquímica y FarmaciaUniversidad Nacional del SurBahía BlancaArgentina
  3. 3.Department of AgronomyKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA
  4. 4.Department of Environmental Science and TechnologyUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

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