Big White Blossoms
Updated: Jun 30, 2019
New Series--Big White Blossoms. Also Act III in Spring, a Play in 3 Acts. Featuring 6 posts that are the plant equivalent of puppies, also a high point of this magical season. There has to be some reason that so many species from so many plant families have come up with the big white blossom as their way to reproduce. Like this sacred datura that grows in the Utah desert. A lovely, opulent bloom that glows in stark contrast to the arid, red rock backdrop. Hallucinogenic, with a seductive fragrance that calls hawk moths and humans alike to wander the canyons at night, for that's where it blooms--often near Anasazi ruins. You know it cast its spell over them too, way back when.
It's winking at you...second post in Act III: Big White Blossoms. Early blooming pasque flower knows how to attract attention: 1. Be the first in the neighborhood to make a showing, 2. Have a big, bold flower that contrasts with the dead brown leaf litter around you, 3. Look like a target. And why would it want attention anyway? Because so much in Nature involves competition. In this case it's competition for pollinating insects. For a little plant like pasque flower that needs to get its precious pollen a long way over to the next pasque flower, it pays to have a strategy. It gets around its bigger neighbors by going to work while they are still slumbering in their winter dormancy. It survives by maximizing its color contrast with the background environment. It achieves its mission by leading important visitors right to the front door only to be smeared with pollen. Then it lets them do the work of finding the next pasque flower. Now that you're in on its joke, you know why it winked!
Part 3--Big White Blossoms. Why white? Why not pink, yellow, purple or red? Sometimes it has a lot to do with who is doing the pollinating. These evening primrose are aptly named, getting their main bloom on in the low-light conditions of dusk and dawn. See how they glow in the desert when the light grows dim? They are angling to catch the eye of their hawk moth pollinators. The paler the bloom, the heavier the scent, the more likely the moth will visit. In this case, the hawk moth is in the driver's seat, foot on the accelerator pushing the primrose toward ever bigger, sweeter flowers. The outcome- a spellbinding, fragrant desert evening, the ground littered with what looks like tissues, everywhere.
Part 4, Big White Flowers. Here's a basic plant truth: It's all about how you get pollinated. Some just do it to themselves--you can imagine what their flowers look like, and it's not much. Others use the wind, so of course they have to get their stamens out there, dangling in the breeze. Then there are flowers that court the daytime insects with color vision that's so acute they see into the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. And finally, the white flowered species which have dispensed with their color pigments entirely to target the night time fliers. Imagine how hard it is to turn off all those pigment-producing genes in your flower tissue--probably just as hard as it is to actually produce the pigments. But it's worth it to them. In the case of this yucca flower-- at great expense to the plant--the stage is set to welcome the yucca moth, which will present it with a carefully wrapped little ball of pollen from another yucca, and then fly off with a pollen ball from this very flower... (all for the cost of laying an egg or two). Quite the interchange!
Part 5, Big White Blossoms. A tour of yet another big white blossom--this one is sego lily, which has just pulled off a super bloom in the Colorado and Utah deserts. As a bee sees it, at the base of the blossom are the sepals. In this case they are greenish and leaf-like, serving to protect the flower. Then the corolla (or petals), like white silk they catch the eye of passing insects and humans alike, drawing them in. Over the petals and into the interior, the 3-tipped stigma sits like a sticky bulls-eye atop its style in the center of an entrancing display of color and shine. Distracted by the fragrant, hair-like nectaries that beckon from the bottom of the cup, the bee blows by the stigma which harvests pollen grains from it, then past the spreading anthers which shower it with their pollen. After bumbling around in bee ecstasy, it's off to the next lily, and this flower gets to work on step two of its mission: making seeds.
Part 6. Why do I love Nature? Let me count the reasons... but one of the top has to be that there are always so many variations on a theme. Among the thousands of flower colors, shapes and sizes, if we focus on just the ones that are big and white, and that bloom in the Utah and Colorado deserts, we'll still find all kinds of variety. The sego lily's cup, the datura's trumpet, the pasque flower's wide open bulls-eye. The bell-like yucca, evening primrose that look like speading angel wings. And what about the skyrocket burst of fragrant sand verbena? Despite the variety, there are common threads at work. Big and little moths are pulling strings behind the scenes. The drive toward bright, show- up-at-night white. The heavy fragrance that comes on in the evening. Their choice of which flower to visit, which to pass by has tinkered with the flower genes. I'm speculating here, but betting that some got switched on, others duplicated. Genes that control genes, genes that make pigments, genes that govern tissue growth, all have been tweaked.
It's a good bet that even when the flower didn't have much to start with--a few small flowers in a cluster, say--that the moths pushed them to be bigger and better. Gentle, incessant pressure could, given enough thousands of years, elongate the corolla tubes, flatten out the corolla, amass the blossoms and synchronize them. All to fit the fickle tastes of an insect no bigger than your thumb! Now that's some power.
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