As my hiking partner and I stop for a rest break among the wildflowers blooming below Virginia’s Apple Orchard Mountain, the air is alive with
butterflies, bees, and small flies that flush like quail from a hunting
dog each time we take a step. It looks like a scene of postcard beauty, but
I know better. I’ve plopped down in the middle of a field of debauchery.
Wildflowers evolved their eye-catching colors and fetching shapes for the sole purpose of seducing pollinators, who then transfer precious genetic material from plant to plant, and—how shall I say this politely?—trigger a little floral procreation. To a bumblebee, all that flowery finery is like a coy mistress batting her eyelashes. “Face it: The average wildflower plot is nothing more than a red-light district for bees, butterflies, and beetles,” explains Amy Stewart, author of the just-released From the Ground Up: The Story of My First Garden. “There’s a hidden agenda behind every bright, tempting flower.”
Hikers can witness nature’s amorous activity if they know what to look for.
Pollination ecology, explains Ed Clebsch, a former University of Tennessee botanist, “is just like human attraction. What’s considered attractive differs greatly from one insect to the next, and the mechanisms for attracting one kind of pollinator or another are pretty darn clever.”
A bloom’s shape holds telltale clues about which creature it seeks to seduce.
Funnel flowers store nectar at the bottom of the tubelike funnel, so pollinators need long beaks and tongues to get to the payload at the bottom. Look for hummingbirds and butterflies frolicking around Indian paintbrush and blue and violet gentians.
Bellflowers are funnel flowers turned upside-down. Creatures capable of hovering, like hummingbirds, are primary pollinators of bellflowers such as columbine and Turk’s-cap lily.
Disk flowers have numerous petals radiating from the center in a classic flower shape. The flat, open blooms make it easy for many kinds of pollinators—from beetles to butterflies—to land and lap up nectar.
Lip flowers, such as monkshood and monkeyflower, are lobed, tubular flowers with prominent upper and lower lips. The lower lip is a perfect landing pad for bees and flies, and supports their weight while they probe the blossom.
Head flowers, such as brown-rayed knapweed and coneflower, aren’t a single flower at all, but an assemblage of many small tubular flowers arranged to appear as a single blossom. Insects of all types swarm to head flowers, but many require pollinators with long, thin tongues to access the tubular blossoms.
Butterfly flowers, such as meadow pea and false indigo, have two large, paired petals above and two smaller below in a butterfly shape. Pollen is hidden between the smaller petals, which separate like a clamshell with the weight of bees, then dust the bees’ bellies with pollen.
Insect-trap flowers, such as Dutchman’s pipevine and lady’s slippers, are the true dominatrices of the flower world. These plants lure insects into the blossom with gaudy colors and odd shapes. When an insect lands on the Dutchman’s pipevine blossom, for example, it slips on the slick petals and drops into the bottom of the pitlike pipe. There, the insect finds a tiny tunnel, at the end of which are translucent spots. The guileless fly or tiny bee heads for daylight, only to be dusted with pollen on its way out. Finally, then, the flower droops and opens, allowing escape.
What Bees See
To understand how flowers attract pollinators, you need to look at the world through a bumblebee’s eyes. While birds and butterflies see the same colors that humans do, many insects?including bees?see the world in a whole different light. They’re blind to red, green appears gray, and ultraviolet (UV) colors are visible. “We walk through the woods and see a world of green,” says Clebsch, “but to an insect, that’s all gray. That makes every splotch of color stand out like a beacon.”
To further advertise their wares of nectar and pollen, many flowers are adorned with striped petals and contrasting color schemes that lead inquisitive pollinators straight to the good stuff. The pink streaks in the spring beauty’s petals are a classic example; think of them as runway lights for an airplane. The Turk’s-cap lily has lines of spots that invite the pollinator to play connect-the-dots for a pollen payoff.
Wildflowers look wildly different to insects able to see the UV spectrum. The marsh marigold’s petals, for example, are a lustrous, uniform yellow to the human eye. A bee, however, sees UV light reflecting off the petal tips. The contrast forms a bull’s-eye, a distinct white orb with a black center that yells like a billboard, Pollen for free! Cornflowers, gentians, golden cinquefoils, periwinkles, and Jersey orchids all display patterns of UV reflection invisible to hikers, but plain as a neon sign to many insects.
Other flowers perform more brazen acts of trickery. Some European orchids actually look like female insects, tricking males into attempted copulation in order to dust them with pollen. Others, like the infamous carrion flower and skunk cabbage, bloom with the enticing smell of fetid meat. Flies (no surprise) are their primary pollinators.
Now do you see why they call them wild flowers?
Local bookstores offer a selection of wildflower guides for state and regional ecosystems. The following nationally acclaimed field guides
are available through www.backpacker.com/bookstore.
Peterson Field Guides (Houghton Mifflin, 800-225-3362; $18 to $19 each). Four regional volumes use black-and-white and color drawings to detail wildflowers.
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Knopf, 800-726-0600; $19.95 each). Updated eastern and western editions released in spring 2001 use full-color photographs to show wildflowers.
North Carolina contributor Eddie Nickens thinks wildflowers’ behavior is so bawdy that public land managers should apply parental warnings to some wildflower-rich hiking trails.