Who are flowers for?
Flowers are for us to admire – right?
Well absolutely yes they are, but flowers aren’t just for us, many of today’s modern blooms however are created primarily to please the human eye – but are we forgetting who flowers are really for?
Let’s take you back a few hundreds of millions of years to when flowers began. The plants that survived and thrived were those that evolved the best strategy to reproduce effectively. The emergence of flowers and nectar allowed plants to attract insects and this improved the efficiency of the pollination process and allowed plants to proliferate.
Flowers evolved over millions of years to attract the best pollinating insects or they formed a symbiotic relationship with certain types of insect to develop a really efficient reproductive cycle. It created a win-win situation whereby flowers provided the insect with much needed food and the insects took the pollen and redistributed it.
Now Horticulture has thrown a ‘spanner in the works’
For millions of years this system has worked well and then humans discovered how we could ‘breed’ bigger and better flowers. Careful selection and cross pollinating meant we could create more colourful blooms. We could develop flowers with modified and elaborate petals and stamens and produce blooms in all the colours of the rainbow. Horticulture also developed the ability to create more bountiful crops and fruits. We also managed to increase the range and variety of many hundreds of species of plants and thereby widen the available larder for many pollinating insects.
However, a whole industry has evolved to create flowering plants whose appeal and use to insects is pretty limited but to us humans they look spectacular!
These plants produce many flowers over long periods of time, often the flowers are bred to be larger and more elaborate and the colour combinations created are really quite astonishing.
Are these really flowers though?
These plants have been cross bred over time to create blooms that could never be created in nature. The stamens and petals are so modified, insects can’t access the nectar or transfer the pollen. The plant cannot reproduce itself. In fact many of these plants are sterile and so cannot reproduce without human interference.
Thus if the flower produced is incapable of performing the function for which it originally evolved – is it really a flower?
Now you may argue that it doesn’t really matter. These plants can’t cross pollinate with other plants and what’s the harm in planting them in the garden. Flip that thought process round and ask what’s the good of planting them in the garden either.
The problem arises if too many highly developed flowers appear in domestic gardens – bees and butterflies would expend so much energy trying to find food. They will have less food to store and this reduces their ability to survive the winters.
If we all try to do just a little bit…
Domestic gardens are becoming far more important to native wildlife than ever before. Do you really want to fill your gardens with plants that cannot provide any food for butterflies or bees?
All that is required is a little more thought before you buy any plants. If you go to a garden centre to buy your plants, have a look at the displays. Do you see any insects flying around (now the Garden Centre could have sprayed the plants), but with that concentration of plants in flower, you would surely expect to see some bees buzzing around.
image B Roslett
Bees see in Ultraviolet, so what we admire in a flower is not actually what attracts the bees to it. It is unlikely that commercial plant breeders check the UV look of the flowers in development to see how and whether a bee is attracted to it and it wouldn’t be commercially viable to do so.
It is quite possible therefore, what you see as a spectacular flower is totally unrecognisable to a bee or butterfly.
A simple check on the plant label will normally tell you whether a plant is good for bees.
We all love to fill our houses with beautiful things. However, you wouldn’t buy a kettle that didn’t boil water just because it looked nice. Good design is about form AND function.
So before you buy your plants for the garden, think what benefits this plant can bring to your garden.