Flowers Aren’t Just Pretty Things

Flowers have a purpose in this world. Most of them are pretty and humans get a lot of enjoyment from admiring them and smelling their fragrance. I’m a sucker for a good looking one too. Yet I think that most of us know that flowers are part of nature’s plan to procreate itself.

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Rhododendron calendulaceum

Of course plants can also asexually propagate themselves. Some plants creep along, sending roots into the ground and increasing their size. Others create bulbils/bulbets that break off to create new plants. Plants do better by increasing their gene pool, however, and sexual reproduction (via exchange of pollen) is the way to do that.

So how do flowers get their pollen exchanged? Some use wind to spread their pollen; those plants tend to forego having petals in the interest of making sure that all parts are easily exposed to transmit and catch pollen. Other flowers need more of a gimmick to attract some help. Pretty flowers encourage humans to move plants around. This act of movement can bring them closer to other populations and allow more unique pollen to be exchanged.

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Bee on Ilex verticillata, female flower

Still the flower needs a mechanism for the exchange – humans don’t normally swap pollen on living plants (well not until plant geeks came along, determined to get really involved in the process). Insects are the primary means of exchanging pollen, especially those that fly from one flower to another, accidentally carrying (and dropping) bits from one place to the next.

Or is it an accident? Nature has engineered this whole process over thousands of years. Pretty flowers encourage pollinators to stop by because pollinators are looking for floral rewards: nectar to drink and pollen to eat. Attractive flowers are the welcome mat that says “I’ve got something here for you if you stop by.”

As the insect (or bird or bat) comes by, pollen gets trapped into hair, feathers and other body parts. At the next flower, some of that trapped pollen rubs off while new pollen is picked up. Male (stamen) and female (pistil) flower parts are arranged to facilitate the possibility that the pollinator will come into contact with the significant pieces to ensure pollination.

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Beetle and bee chowing down together on Spiraea


These floral rewards are no small matter. They are the food that sustains a large portion of important insects: bees, wasps, butterflies, flower flies, and beetles. In return, the flowers get pollinated and make fruit and seeds for themselves, for birds, for mammals and for us.

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Cloudless sulphur on Malvaviscus



It’s a big cycle – plants to insects to birds, to mammals and even to humans. It’s important to support the first two connections: plants and insects. They are the building blocks to the rest of the chain.

Choose native flowers because those support native insects. Choose a diverse mix of flowers to support a diverse mix of insects. And choose flowers and seeds that haven’t been pre-treated with harmful pesticides and avoid applying pesticides yourself, especially when flowers are blooming.

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Tiarella cordifolia, foamflower

Remember, flowers aren’t just pretty – they have a JOB to do.

[But it is nice that they are pretty too.]


© 2014, Ellen Honeycutt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Thanks for pointing out the clear connection between insects, flowers & us. I want to add that pesticides really do keep pollinators out of your garden. I recently visited a whole new subdivision, perfectly manicured & lovely to the eye… but not an insect or butterfly anywhere to be seen likely due to pesticides. Just across the street, however, the “wild lands” were teaming with bug life and bird song where nobody was spraying.
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