“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” ~Georgia O’Keefe
A search for quotes about flowers produces no small number of results. Their beauty has inspired painters, poets, presidents and preachers. Do the scientific revelations about flowers rob them of their mystery and inspiration? I’ll let you be the judge.
As we learned back in elementary school, a flower’s true purpose is making seeds. Every kind of flower produces pollen that is normally “exchanged” between other blooms of their species.
Since plants can’t walk so well—or buy a drink for the lovely snapdragon at the end of the hedgerow—they employ vast and sundry strategies for getting their pollen to neighboring blooms. Some plants use wind or water, but most tap the locomotive abilities of some organism.
Attracting said mobile critter can be done with fragrance, shape, warmth and other tempting luxuries, but their colors are what inspire preschoolers to scribble them on scrap paper and pick them by the fist-full.
The color of any flower is no accident. If you want to attract a hummingbird, it’s well known that red makes them, well, see red. The compound eyes of bees, however, are more sensitive to yellows, blues, purples and even ultraviolet hues, so these are more likely get their attention. Flowers that depend upon bats, moths and other nocturnal animals often use white to stand out best. Please note that pollinators don’t seem to know which flowers biologists expect them to visit; scientific hypotheses are made for breaking, and casual observers may find frequent rule-breakers.
Ever noticed a flower that almost looks like a bull’s-eye? That’s no coincidence. Circular patterns, lines and “landing strips” can literally point to the sweet treats within. The bluebonnet, state flower of Texas, has a little spot that turns from white to purple when its pollen has gone “stale” so bees don’t waste time carrying around pollen that’s past its “best-by date.”
A small number of animals, like bees, can make use of pollen, but most cannot. Thus, we have nectar, a sugary, energy-rich treat with which flowers bribe critters like casinos offering free buffets.
“A rose by any other name might smell as sweet,” but why does it have that fragrance at all? Scents can attract animals from a distance, even in the dark. Some fragrances mimic a pollinator’s “love pheromone” or the aroma of some tasty food. If that preferred food happens to be a decaying monkey, well, there are flowers that smell like rotting meat to attract flies. Methinks Shakespeare knoweth not the corpse flower.
How much richer is our world because of the desperation of plants to bribe, trick or otherwise enslave those of us with mobility? The science of biology, as I see it, adds to my awe and appreciation for the life with which we share this earth. Hopefully, my little treatise on the adaptations of flowers will inspire you to get to know a flower a little better.
Known as the “singing zoologist,” author and songwriter Lucas Miller has been educating children about environmental awareness through the gift of music. For more information and examples of his work, please visit www.lucasmiller.net.