One of the best signs of spring for many nature lovers is when flowers start to bloom. Whether it is a spring bulb in a garden or a tree in blossom, it adds life and joy after a bare winter. But have you ever thought about why those flowers are there and their whole purpose for the development of not just the plant but also the broader ecosystem?
Plants grow flowers to help them reproduce. Flowers attract insects that move pollen from male flowers to female flowers, pollinating them and allowing them to reproduce. Flowers are a big part of the reproduction cycle.
As pretty as these flowers are, they aren’t designed for the enjoyment of humans. Instead, they play a vital role in the lifecycle of the plant. We don’t think of plants as organisms that use sexual reproduction for procreation because we don’t see male and female organisms, and there is no apparent reproductive act.
However, there are male and female parts to flowers, and, with the help of pollinators, they can pass genetic material to each other for successful fertilization. This then leads to the production of seeds and often the generation of fruit for seed dispersal.
Male and Female Plants
The anatomy of a flower is complex and interesting. We may only see the bright petals and a mass in the center, but there is more. There are male and female parts that are essential for reproduction.
Males have a series of stamen with anthers on the top that contain pollen. Females have a stigma in the middle of the flower with a style that runs down to an internal ovary.
To pass this genetic material between plants, the pollen from the male anthers needs to reach the female stigma to fertilize the ovules within the ovary. This is not something that the plants can do alone. Instead, they rely on other creatures, such as bees, to pick up the anthers’ pollen and deposit it onto the stigma of the next flower they visit.
To Attract Pollinating Insects
Flowers are bold, beautiful landing pads that encourage pollinating insects. Flowers come in different shapes, sizes, and colors to attract insects. The insects get to feed on nectar, and the plants get to deposit the pollen. It is a great symbiotic relationship.
In honey bees, this goes further with bees collecting the nectar in sacs to produce honey in their hives. This would not be possible without a noticeable structure and secure landing pads for these insects. If a plant were to extend its reproductive organs out of its stem, it might go unnoticed, and the chances of a new generation would decrease.
There are different ways that plants can achieve this and the structures and approaches often relate to the anatomy of specific insects. For example, you will find many big, open flowers in the daisy family easily accessible for many insect species. Then there are others with bell-like structures that insects need to fly or crawl into. This is great for bees or hummingbirds with long tongues. They brush against the anthers and collect the pollen as they reach in.
While we may think of flowers as flowering plants within our garden or in wildflower meadows, there are other examples. Trees will produce flowers in the form of blossoms with the same intention. Pollinators will pass from flower to flower for the trees to fertilize each other and develop seeds.
It is fascinating to compare images of common flowers under different light conditions. When we use technology to see in UV, we see different patterns and markings invisible that can be seen by pollinating insects such as bees. This includes contrasting rings and spot patterns that direct the insect to the right place.
While we are often encouraged to stop and smell the roses, these beloved fragrances aren’t for our benefit. These flowers can also emit a lovely scent to draw pollinators in. Flowers produce this scent to attract insects in the vicinity and advertise the tasty meal within.
Flowers Die, so Seeds or Fruits Can Grow
After successful pollination and fertilization, the flower is no longer needed. The plant then needs to put all of its energy into forming the seed with all the essential genetic information and protecting this within a seed pod or fruit. The flower will wilt, and the petals will fall away. Some gardeners will “deadhead” these flowers for show, but those that want to generate seeds can leave the plant to develop naturally and collect the seed pods.
Plants that develop fruits, such as berries or hips, do so to attract more helpers for the seeds’ dispersal. A tasty, juicy berry is irresistible for a small bird or mammal. They can gain a lot of energy. Later on, they will pass the seeds in their feces at some distance from the parent plant. This dispersal means less competition between plants. Trees have a similar strategy with their nuts. Animals that collect fallen nuts will easily cache them elsewhere, and many will be left or forgotten.
Flower production is Part of the Lifecycle
There is a reason why we tend to associate flowers with spring. While there are many winter-flowering plants and cultivated varieties for longer blooms in our gardens, spring is when nature comes into bloom. The plants time the flowers with the warmer weather and insects’ emergence to allow time for adequate pollination. As the year progresses, the plant can work on developing the seeds. Trees that blossom in spring can fruit or drop nuts in fall. Then the whole cycle begins again.
Flowers are more than just a seasonal way to add some color to the natural world. They serve an essential purpose for plant reproduction and feeding many insect species.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.