Flower Flower Give Me Your Nectar
Ahh yes! For many of us the winter months are a time for flu shots and watching movies. Then the birds start singing their lilting tunes and the days become a little warmer and longer. Creatures of the forest begin to emerge from their winter hiding spots and previously dormant plants wake up. Humans wake, stretch and bask in the spring sunshine, and maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of the first flower of the year. And Oh My! That little firework of color swimming amidst a sea of brown leaves always makes us so happy! So, with spring in mind, let us talk about flowers!
The Dodecatheon jeffreyi or sierra shooting star Photo: sierrawildflowers.org
Little Sierra Shooting Star, why are you so pretty? The question may seem simple, but underneath are some complicated natural phenomenon, and it all starts with the birds and the bees. Every living thing will die someday and, before it does, that living thing must reproduce in order for the species to continue. For a plant rooted in place the task of finding a mate is particularly challenging. With this in mind, plants have a secret up their sleeves, flowers! These vibrant petals and tantalizing aromas attract animals who act as the plant’s legs, moving genetic material from one plant to the next. You may think, “Whoa, plants are manipulating animals for their own benefit!” and it is true. However…there’s more. Flowers also make jokes. “What did the old flower say to the new flower? What’s up bud!”
The mariposa lily Photo: sierrawildflowers.org
The animals that flowers attract are pollinators, and each plant is trying to attract a specific set of animals. For this, the plants employ a number of different strategies. Visual cues are probably the most striking. Many flowers have a dark center spot, or target, to indicate their location in the environment and stand out amongst their surroundings. Other plants attract pollinators who see in different sets of colors than humans. A bee’s vision is in the ultra violet spectrum and consequently sees a flower completely differently than a human. Cool!
Silverweed: Left is how humans see and right is how bees see. Photo: Bjørn Rørslett
Smells also attract animal pollinators. How a flower smells and when a flower smells affects what pollinators it will be visited by. Flowers trying to attract bats and moths will release a majority of smelly compounds during the nighttime, while flowers attracting bees and butterflies will smell most strongly during the day. Some flowers attract pollinating flies by smelling like rotting meat or dung. Finally, there are flowers that pollinated by birds. Since birds have a very poor sense of smell, these flowers are often odorless. Next time you stop to smell a flower, see if you can tell what kind of pollinator the flower is trying to attract.
Mountain Misery - photo credit: Andrew Massyn
Have you ever seen something that no one else did? Perhaps a rogue snowflake, a deer scampering off, or a tiny flower peaking up through a crack in the pavement. As we move throughout our busy lives there are many things vying for our attention, and often the little things go unnoticed. These little things and the glimpses of the rare lessons to slow down, take a deep breath, and observe nature’s magic. After several very dry years, California has had a healthy dose of rainfall. Many plant seeds can wait several years underground for just the right conditions to sprout. This year those conditions for flowers are ideal. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California is in a super-bloom right now with an abundance of flowers bursting from the ground. With this in mind, it is time that we all get outside and enjoy some spring sunshine. Strap some shoes to your feet, walk to a sunny spot and enjoy some flowery magic. Happy spring!
Photo by Kirk Christ, Orange County Register/SCNG