On this first day of spring, even though there is two and a half feet of snow on the ground, I look forward to that time of year when the soil warms, plants come alive, and my world is filled with flowers. This piece written some time ago, is a good reminder of the miracles to come!
Some time ago I knew a woman who, even though she was flirting with her eightieth birthday, would go for a brisk three mile walk at 7:00 AM nearly every day during the warmer months of the year. Upon returning to her house she loved to sit on her porch in her sofa swing. From that vantage point she could see a large meadow of wildflowers that began immediately in front of her house and extended several hundred yards to the east. In my presence she once observed, “The walk is for my body. Sitting here watching the wildflower meadow and all of its wonder is for my soul”.
This elderly lady’s biggest passion was watching the bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other critters dance from flower to flower in their quest for nectar and pollen. It was a simple pleasure that I am sure she enjoyed to her dying day. There was nothing that quenched her thirst for life quite like the joy she received from these daily observations.
I was a young man at the time, and I was fascinated with her exuberance for life. She seemed more alive than many people I knew that were decades younger than her. Her name was Daisy and a better name could not have been found for this dear woman.
Occasionally I would stop by in the morning and sit with her. She always kept a pair of binoculars by her side. Daisy would lift the binoculars to her eyes, study the goings-on out in the field, and make a simple comment like “Those bees are sure busy mining for gold!” The she’d look at me with a big grin and we’d both laugh. Not a laugh responding to something funny, but laughing for the sure love of life.
Flower pollination is one of nature’s most fascinating processes. The number of adaptations that plants and animals have made in harmony with each other is utterly miraculous. It is the perfect symbiotic relationship. Many plants need carriers to aid in their sexual reproduction and ultimately the continuation of their species, and many animals need the food that that the sexual plant parts provide for their very survival.
While some plants may rely upon the wind for pollination, most plants rely upon the animal kingdom to carry the pollen from the male reproductive organ (known as the stamen) from one plant to the female reproductive organ (known as the pistil) of another plant of the same species. To accomplish this transfer of pollen, flowering plants have come up with some incredible strategies and adaptations to attract members of the animal kingdom to do this task. Some flowers have formed visual stimuli that attract particular animals. For example, numerous flowers use a color contrast to form a bull’s eye that may attract members of the insect community. Members of the composite flower family utilize this strategy. Asters frequently have bright petals and a solid black or brown center, forming a bull’s eye that identifies the part of the plant where pollen may be harvested to interested collectors. The color of a plant may impact which insect is attracted to it. Entomologists and naturalists have discovered that butterflies are attracted to the red and yellow color patterns and may favor plants utilizing these colors. Bees see yellow, blue, and green, but not red. But don’t be fooled, they also can see colors that are not visible to the human eye such as ultraviolet which may explain why bees are such effective pollinators of red, pink, and ultraviolet apple blossoms. It is likely that contrast between ultraviolet and other colors attracts bees to the ripe flowers.
Another adaptation that flowering plants use to attract animal pollinators is smell, also know olfactory stimuli. Birds and butterflies do not have well developed olfactory senses, but bees, moths, and bats are very sensitive to smells. Bats are attracted to dank smells, and mothes are attracted to succulent smells. Both do their pollination primarily at night.
Flowering plants may use unusual adaptations to attract pollinators. Two of these adaptations are found in the orchid family. One orchid known as Ophrys actually has a flower evolved to a form resembling the female wasp. The plant emits pheromone that is used by female wasps to attract male wasps. This may be quite confusing for the male wasp as it attempts to couple, unsuccessfully, with the Ophrys orchid. Another common orchid, the yellow lady’s slipper, emits a fragrance that attracts flies. When the flies search for the source of fragrance they fall into a pouch. Once inside they become intoxicated by the strong aroma. The only way out is though an opening in the pouch where the plant’s pollen sacs are located. The pollen gets stuck to the fly and the fly transports the pollen to another yellow lady’s slipper where it may choose to get intoxicated one more time just for the sheer joy of it.
One aptly named plant, the carrion flower, smells like rotting meat. This terrible smell is solely for the purpose of attracting flies. The flies think the flower is a smorgasbord, but in fact have been duped into being a transporter of the plant’s pollen.
Flowering plants may also use structural adaptations to help spread their pollen. Some plants have anthers (the part of the stigma where the pollen is located) that develop a great deal of tension as the male sexual reproduction organ develops within the flower. When a bird or other pollinator tries to harvest the nectar of the flower, the tension holding the anthers is released and pollen is thrown onto the bill of the bird, for example, where it will be carried to come in contact with the pistil of another flower of the same species.
Jewelweed has a different but similar strategy for pollination. The flower is located at the end of a very thin but springy pedicel (stem). The stem is exceptionally flexible. As the hummingbirds dart their tongues in and out of the flower the pedicel pulls the flower away leaving pollen on the bill of the hummingbird.
The pollination and fertilization strategies of plants are almost endless. Each an awesome miracle of nature that is sure to stretch the average human imagination.
I was fortunate to know Daisy for one summer. I am sure my brief presence was but a fleeting memory in her long life. For me, the pollen of her love for the wild, her appreciation for the simplest of pleasures, and her willing laughter that exposed her most inner being have fertilized my soul and borne fruit and memories that are as fertile now as they were thirty years ago.
Originally written in March of 2005