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The birds, bees and more

October 12, 2013

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Have you ever thought about the sex that takes place in your garden?

Let’s clarify that question. Do you ponder the wonders of plant reproduction?

Plant “sex” is extraordinarily varied. Flowering plants strut their stuff to attract pollinators, typically insects, to ensure their ongoing survival. The breeze satisfies other plants. Still others need a little attention from birds or mammals.

Spore and cone-bearing plants, like ferns and pines, reproduce with the help of wind and water. The plant world’s survival depends on this intricate codependency.

Like all living things, plants struggle to survive in the varied conditions provided by planet Earth. They compete for water, space, nutrition, light and air. And they adapt, if needed, to reproduce.

Some plants, for example, are designed to self-pollinate to save energy. They typically have tiny flowers since they do not need to attract pollinators. Other plants with flowers designed to cross-pollinate may self-pollinate rather than die. On the other hand, some plants prefer a single dedicated pollinator, such as bumblebees.

Flowers are a fairly modern adaptation. In ancient times, there were many plants, but no flowers. Over time, bunches of leaves around the plant’s sexual organs evolved, developing color and producing food to lure insects. These first flowers branched into thousands of forms, colors and varieties. Bees, butterflies and moths began to rely on flowers for nourishment.

Today, nearly all pollinators fly. Colorful flowers attract them from a distance as they look down upon plants. Smell also attracts pollinators, particularly those that do not see colors well at all ends of the spectrum.

Interestingly, pollinators see some plant colors differently than humans. Bees like yellow because the flowers appear as warm colors to them. Red wavelengths are too long for bees to see, so what humans think of as purples, bees see without the red and therefore view them as blue. Humans see some flowers as white, while bees may see them as ultraviolent.

If you are selecting plants for your garden, consider these general guidelines: Bees are most drawn to yellow, blue, purple and ultraviolet. Butterflies prefer red, orange, yellow and pink. Common flies see green, lime, white and cream, while carrion-eating flies detect maroon and brown. Hummingbirds best see red, orange and purple.

Color variations help to lure pollinators. Stripes, spots and markings on petals are often called bee guides. Many two-toned flowers also have a yellow or gold glow around their nectar-bearing parts. Some flowers have colored grooves to assist with navigation. Others use scented petals. All is fair in the name of garden reproduction!

Resource: Sex in Your Garden by Angela Overy

For answers to your horticulture questions, please call the Texas AgriLife Extension, Hood County at 817-579-3280 and ask to speak to a Master Gardener or visit the website at hoodcountymastergardeners.org.

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Category: Horticulture Archived