Nature holds a lot of lessons for life. One is that there can be many different solutions to the same problem.
For instance, how to attract pollinators.
One solution is to make a nice flat platform for them. You can attract the insects with lovely bright ‘ray florets’ on the outside, whilst the ‘disc florets’ on the inside hold the goodies. The insect gets a dusting of pollen to take to the next flower, whilst it drinks deep from the nectaries. Members of the daisy family, Asteraceae, tend to use this solution. Examples include rudbeckia, helenium, helianthus (sunflower), echinacea, cosmos, dahlia and zinnia.
Some of the daisies have been bred to have more dramatic flower-forms. Their disc florets may have mutated into more petals, or differently shaped petals. It’s a carnival parade.
All that might seem a bit extravagant. Frippery and flapdoodle. You might want to stick with a nice simple cup. This is how the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and the rose family, Rosaceae, approach the problem. They are the classic Biology lesson flower shape, with five petals, a central style and sticky stigma (to collect pollen) and surrounding stamens. You can read more about flower structure in A Gallery of Geraniums.
In these family too, there have been rogue elements, coming up with beautiful variations of form. Singles have become doubles. There is astonishing variety in petal arrangement, shape and texture.
Another solution is to hide the goodies deep inside. This means the insects have to furtle around a bit, getting a good dusting of pollen all over their bodies before they leave. Foxgloves and penstemons use this strategy.
Members of the pea family, Fabaceae, have a protective hood over the sexual organs of the flower. The hood envelopes the flower in bud, and still protects it once the flower has opened. There are usually two ‘wings’ beneath the hood, and a ‘keel’; a boat-shaped lower petal, beneath. Once you are familiar with a pea flower, you start to recognise what a huge family it is. It includes sweet peas, peas and beans of course, but also lupins, wisteria, laburnum and robinia.
These at first glance seem similar to the bells above. But they are even more cunning. The insect probes the flower, and a lever mechanism bends the two stamens to dust the insect with pollen. If the insect then enters a more mature flower, the pollen is in exactly the right place to be deposited on the stigma. Salvia, in the Lamiaceae family, uses this strategy.
These are sprays of flowers on the same stem. Plants in the Apiaceae family, which include wild carrot, parsnip and parsley, and those in the Amaryllidaceae family, like snowdrops, daffodils and alliums, have umbellifer flowers. They are insect-pollinated, but rely on wind for their seed dispersal. It makes sense to have light and airy sprays of flowers, which then form light and airy seeds.
These are umbels that are arranged in globes. They also tend to be insect-pollinated and wind-dispersed. I’m guessing that they are often spiky to deter animals from eating them before the seeds are ripe.
Flowers with long throats are suited to being pollinated by butterflies and moths, who have long tongues. They include buddleia and nicotiana. Crocosmia also have long throats, and can be pollinated by hummingbirds.
Size isn’t everything
Sometimes flowers are so small that they don’t strike you as being flowers at all. Alchemilla mollis is part of the rose family, but the flowers have become tiny, and are held in sprays.
Sometimes flowers aren’t flowers at all. Euphorbia have Cyathia instead of flowers. They don’t have petals or nectar, but are reduced to the bare essentials of stamens and bare pistil.
And sometimes flower forms are so impossibly beautiful, they defy all reason. They just are.
So what’s the point of this post?
I suppose I am just enjoying diversity. There is more than one way to get your flowers pollinated and disperse your seed. Variety is the spice of life. If we only had umbels or cups, we would be impoverished. Nature has given us this diversity to enjoy. Nature makes mistakes, and this can lead to wonderful creativity.
Life is a journey and there is so much to learn along the way. Gardening can seem like an impenetrable mist of Latin names. But once you start delving around, it is quite interesting how plants are related to one another. And if you learn a member of one plant family, you start spotting its relatives all over the place.
Many Faces. Everybody belongs here.
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There is a lot of conflict and confusion in the world. Nature helps me cope with the chaos. Join me if you could do with a little dose of tranquillity.