Functional Flowers – a brief look at how flowers became what they are today, and why….
I am always initially attracted to a plant by its foliage. I believe that foliage is the most important aspect of any plant, considering that you see foliage for most of the years and flowers only for a few weeks. However, some amazing flowers have evolved, and these do nothing but enhance the foliage of the plant they are borne upon.
From the spectacular plants like Hoya imperialis to common garden flowers, scent and colour are used in varying degrees to perform one function – reproduce.
Flowers are used to lure pollinating animals, birds and insects to them. They can also be adapted to other forms of pollination, but here we will concentrate on the basics of relationships between animals and insects.
I’m sure you will have seen a yellow flower turn bright purple under UV light. The UV patterns are visible to insects and guide them to their goal like lights on a runway. They are rewarded with sweet nectar, whilst dispersing pollen and helping the plant reproduce. Look how the yellow Bidens flower stands out in negative, which isn’t far off how an insect will see it.
Natural selection favours those plants with the most attractive characteristics. Pollinators tend to be quite specific, with the same insects returning to flowers of the same type time and time again. This way, many plants can co-exist in a single habitat, with the millions of insects flying around pollinating their particular flower.
Such specialisation can help a habitat thrive when there is a good natural balance of plants and insects. However, in the event of the insect population failing, the highly specialised relationship ceases, and the flower then becomes genetically excluded. Specialisation can therefore be seen as a risk, with a more general approach being more successful.
Generalists rely on a wider range of species. Many flowers appear similar and carry the same fragrance, have the same structure or are the same colour. These may all be frequented by a range of insects, which results in less efficient pollination, but a much smaller chance of catastrophic failure.
Selection of the prettiest, most fragrant flowers applies to humans too. We collect, propagate and grow on the most desirable plants, furthering them much in the same way an insect does.