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Plant Pollination & Their Pollinators

Although bees pollinate more flowers than butterflies, hummingbirds, and insects, butterflies seem to make people happy. Their bright colors light up a garden, they don’t sting, and favor hot colors and cool shady places. This means you can design your garden with bright, colorful flowers and a shady spot to sit down in and enjoy the show. Butterflies also increase your bird population as birds love to eat them! For this reason, butterflies especially favor plants that offer camouflage so don’t forget to include that in your garden.

Butterfly morphology includes a pair of “false eyes” on the tail of their wings to confuse the would-be predator into thinking their tail is their head which gives the butterfly a chance to escape. In addition, their bitter taste also helps keep them alive long enough in most cases to lay eggs on host plants that they sample first for suitability by tasting leaves with their feet!

Butterflies that are not tasty are slower flyers – maybe only 10 miles per hours. The tastier treats, like Skippers, can fly up to 30 miles per hour.

Since the whole objective for plants is to attract pollinators for survival, plants have their job cut out for them. Many, but not all, pollinators fly. They are attracted, yes to scent, but also by color and shape. Different pollinators see the same color in a different way. For example, when it comes to red flowers, only butterflies and hummingbirds see red. Other pollinators like bees and flies have to rely on the scent of red flowers because they don’t see red. Bees are attracted to blue and yellow flowers, as are butterflies, but see red as blue.

Once color attracts the pollinator, shape plays its roll. It boils down to what shape is worth their trouble. It is a case of fitting or fleeing. Common flower shapes include the bowl which works for short and long tongue insects like bees and beetles. The trumpet and umbrella shapes are perfect for long tongue insects, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Flowers with landing platforms work for short and long tongue insects, but butterflies are choosy and prefer landing platforms that are pretty stable.

Ah yes, it is a case of the perfect Cinderella shoe. For this very purpose, native plants always thrive better in their native habitats. It stands to reason that the availability of the right pollinator for the right plant makes plant propagations a “shoe-in” (sorry couldn’t resist ).

In the reproductive structure of the seed-bearing plants known as angiosperms, a flower may contain up to four whorls or arrangements of parts: carpels, stamens, petals, and sepals. The female reproductive organs consist of one or more carpels. Each carpel includes an ovary, style, and stigma. A single carpel or a group of fused carpels is often referred to as a pistil. The male reproductive parts are the stamens, made up of a filament and anther. The reproductive organs may be enclosed in an inner whorl of petals and an outer whorl of sepals.

Over many millennia, flowers have evolved in form and color as a response to their pollinators. Some flowers produce nectar to attract animal pollinators, and these flowers are often highly adapted to specific groups of pollinators. Flowers pollinated by moths, such as species of jasmine and nicotiana, are often pale and fragrant in order to be found in the evening, while those pollinated by birds, such as fuschias, are frequently red and odorless, since birds have good vision but a less developed sense of smell.

Wind-pollinated flowers, such as those of oak trees or grass, are usually drab and inconspicuous. Well, so how does this all work…boy meets girl I mean? In order for plants to thrive they need to pollinate and so the process goes like this… Plants are male or female, or both at the same time or at different times. A bit confusing but they have a system.

As mentioned above (also see diagram), male parts consist of stamens (anthers at the top holds the pollen and rather flexible filament holds the anther tip). The pollen grains, of which there are thousands on a plant, hold the male genes of the plant. They appear as white, yellow, or orange in most cases and disperse in many ways as dust. They are tough and travel by wind, water, animal, or insect. They cling to the back, head, wings, feet of pollinators and travel inches or miles. They have a protective coating that will keep the pollen dormant for thousands of years until once again it becomes softened by the moisture of female parts of the same flowers. And what is so amazing with all this flitting, fleeing, and dispersing, pollen can’t end up on the wrong doorstep. Each pollen grain has its own distinctive shape that is designed to precisely fit into the female parts of the same flower! Very cool!

Again as mentioned above, the female parts of the flower contain the ovary. The ovary is located at the base of the carpel and ripens into a fruit after fertilization of one or more of the ovules. Each unit is referred to as a carpel. When the carpels are fused together, they make a pistil. At the top of the pistil is the stigma. The pistil can be reclusive until is ready to accept pollen, when the stigma is receptive, it will only allow the right pollen to progress to the ovary.

For illustrators, it is important to note that the “receptive” appearance of stigma is different for each flower. This is especially important if you are illustrating the different stages of a plant. Note that some pistils lunge forward, split open to display hair for trapping pollen and become sticky for the same purpose. While some gleam, other flowers appear brighter in color, while still others increase their fragrance all in an attempt to attract pollen from a male counterpart. Once this has been done, pollination has begun and the journey from stigma to ovary down the length of the style is chemically communicated and only the strong will survive!

Upon reaching the ovary the pollen finds the ovules (seed or eggs) arranged differently for each type of flowers. It takes one pollen grain to fertilize one ovule at which point the male parts of the flower are no longer needed and most of the flower parts begin to fade, wither, and drop off. Also remember to include this when illustrating flower stages.

The female part of the flower, however, swells sucking up moisture and nutrients from its roots and develops a new appearance with all its nutritional supply package in a hard shell known as the seed head.

All plant parts play a role in helping the plants succeed in reproducing. Here are some of the star players and their important role:

  1. Sepals protect the flower before it opens from harmful insects and sun.
  2. Petals both attract pollinators with the bright colors and scent, but also protect the reproductive parts of the plant.
  3. Tepals, actually the term used for plants whose sepals and petals look the same, as in a lily or tulip. The outside sepals perform the same job as the sepals.
  4. Bracts can be green, hairy, small, large or even colorful. They too act as both protector and provocateur.
  5. Nectar is edible and sweet and protected, a veritable candy store behind bars, alluring pollinators who greedily take all they can get. Because of the trouble it takes to get at the nectar, pollinators deposit pollen as they flit about getting their fill.

It is all pretty remarkable how all this works. But I suppose no more remarkable that the birth of a human being. Life in all its forms is a magical blessed event. May we always care for and rejoice at the spark of divinity that is part of every living thing.

God bless. OM

3 Responses to “Plant Pollination & Their Pollinators”

  1. Sharon Reed says:

    Beautiful artwork and overall site layout. I thought I knew a lot about plant pollination until I read your article. Your article is very informative and well-written.

    Thank you.

  2. Ora Creitz says:

    I enjoy planting sunflowers in the summer. It really soothes me.