Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

Trout LilyPurposeful, calculating, conniving, seductive. These words do not conjure a listless hour at my sit spot, the slanted rays of afternoon sunlight welcoming and warm on my face. But in the bird-song infused peace around me, slick sales pitches are being made, careful traps laid and triggered, packages discreetly placed and transported. I'm talking about flowers, of course, the complicated, striving vessels of life that are all of the adjectives above, as much as they are the delicate beauties that warm our hearts and give us pause to look, smile, smell.

Within my sight today, demure clusters of blue cohosh blossoms challenge my eyes to even recognize their small dark purple petals, the six stamen tipped with yellow pollen, and the green central pistil. The flowers appear to emerge randomly among the supple leaves of the large cohosh patch. However, random seems like an unfitting description for a flower whose pollen and pistil mature at different times, to ensure cross pollination between different flowers.

Cohosh blossoms are hardly alone in having special adaptations to promote their health and survival. Because most flowers rely on outside actors—such as bees, butterflies, moths, humming birds and wind—to connect the male pollen with the female egg cells, they have evolved remarkable means of helping to get the job done. For starters, flowers produce nectar solely to attract pollinators like butterflies and moths, who eat it, or bees who carry it home to nourish their young. The nectar can be deep within the flower, so the visitor may have to get good and covered with pollen to get it, before traveling to the next flower for more, thus transporting the yellow packages in the process. The mountain laurel is somewhat aggressive in its approach, as its stamens snap forward like little booby traps to souse the visitor with a shower of pollen upon arrival. The skunk cabbage is less forceful. It creates its own heat within the hollow of its petals, sometimes melting the snow around this early plant, and making a warm shelter for would be pollinators.

Petals, with their often remarkably bright colors and astounding configurations, are, of course, the sales pitches of the flower world. Petals and scents say to bees and butterflies 'Come here. I got something for ya.' The flora that rely on the wind to move their pollen, such as oaks and many types of trees and grasses, do not put on the same kind of show. Instead, they release massive quantities of pollen that blows and floats through the air, perchance to land on the right flower. It is the floral equivalent of the human concept of faith.

Why all the pizzazz and scheming? Don't lady slippers, tiger lilies and the billowing clouds of tree pollen seem a little profligate? The answer is: not if your life depends on it. Without pollination this spring and summer, there would be no seeds this fall, and no cherries, apples, ears of corn or grains of wheat, to name a few. So it isn't just the plants that rely on getting it right, it's all of us, even to the levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. Here in my woods I see little light green flowers on the maples and oaks, four slender, yellow trout lily blossoms, may apples about to uncurl their waxy white petals, and the cutest purple violets. Bees will no doubt be visiting soon. In the warm sun I feel strong in my person, muscle and bone, and powerful as a species—steel, automobiles, thousands of years of history—but without these most delicate of plants and animals we would thrash away to nothing within a matter of seasons. It is a humbling reminder, and it makes me feel grateful for each blossom, and for every bee.

 

References:

Lauber, P. 1986. From Flower to Flower: Animals and Pollination. New York. Crown Publishers, Inc.
Niering, W. A. et. al. 1979. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wild Flowers. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.
Niering, W. A. et. al. 1979. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wild Flowers. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.