Beyond the beauty
While many of us take pleasure in being around blooming plants because of their beauty, a closer look reveals the true nature of flowers. What might at first glance appear to be a peaceful wildflower meadow is actually the site of frenzied activity. For many creatures on Earth, a collection of flowers is more akin to Las Vegas during rush hour than it is to the relaxing image we take it to be. Many plants have developed flowers with advanced combinations of sights, smells, and other cues that help them attract the visitors they want. In fact, these plants are actively competing against each other in order to attract the most desirable pollinators. We are still constantly learning about the different ways that plants use flowers to attract visitors, however what we already know may change the way you look at flowers forever.
To put it bluntly, plants have been using flowers to manipulate animals for millions of years. Flowering plants mostly require that their pollen is transported from plant to plant by another organism in order to produce the most fertile seed. So, they attract animals (usually insects) with nectar, hoping they will come into contact with sticky pollen and visit flowers on other plants of the same species. In this process, the unwitting animal exchanges pollen between the two plants and ensures proper fertilization. Magnolia trees are a good example of where floral attraction first started some 200 million years ago. Magnolia flowers still look extremely similar to the first flowers on the earth. The prime pollinators at that time were beetles- slow, clumsy flyers that needed a highly visible and easily accessible landing pad. Magnolia flowers form the perfect bullseye for beetles to locate and land on. As plants and animals continued to evolve alongside each other, flowers became much more complicated in order to accomplish specific tasks.
The ultraviolet spectrum and electrical fields
Many modern-day flowers look very different to us than they do to pollinators. For example, a good deal of flowers possess markings in the ultraviolet spectrum. These markings are invisible to the human eye yet assist in guiding pollinators to the nectar they are looking for. This allows for the most efficient pollination visits. Some flowers are able to change their appearance after pollination, giving curious animals in the area the heads-up that they should move on. The scents that flowers give off are also complex signals that serve to attract specific pollinators. These adaptations give plants the ability to ‘pick and choose’ who visits their blooms, choosing those species which most effectively pollinate that specific plant.
It’s even been found that flowers have unique electrical fields. Pollinators, bees in particular, are able to ‘read’ these electrical fields and it is believed they can glean some pretty amazing information such as the type of flower and even if there has been a recent visitor. Another recent research article points to the fact that some flowers have hot spots that serve to help guide pollinators as well. This can really help in the dark!
Flowering plants go all-out in order to advertise their willingness for visitors. Just like the glittering boulevards of Vegas, however, there is a deeper reason behind all of the glamour- the house always wins.