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  • HDT Team

Flowers with Fun Adaptations

Damon Billington is an intern with Hunt Utilities Group for agrivoltaics and agrobotics. His other interests include nature writing and photography. We are glad to feature some of his work on the Happy Dancing Turtle blog.

three panel image of flowers
Photo by Damon Billington

Flowers are more than what you get your partner as a romantic gift when you have waited too long to get anything truly meaningful. They are also, and primarily, the way about 391,000 species or 94% of all vascular plants reproduce. Having this many different flower species has given nature plenty of opportunities to experiment and create some very neat adaptations. Here we will discuss three plants native to Minnesota all with very neat flowers.

The first flower we are going to look at is also the only flower that actually looks like a flower. The great lobelia is a tall, slender plant that gets very pretty blue flowers on it. These flowers are longer than they are wide and have three petals that extend from the front. These three petals are where the flower starts getting interesting.

The great lobelia. Photo by Damon Billington.

You see, these flowers hide their nectar. The nectar of the great lobelia is inside and at the rear of the flower. This makes it so that whatever wants to get that nectar has to fully enter the flower to reach it. The great lobelia does this because while the nectar is at the rear the pollen is at the front. When a creature enters the flower to reach the nectar it both picks up and deposits pollen.

But how does the great lobelia ensure that the creature entering is large enough to brush against the pollen, but not large enough to break the flower? Well, those three petals act as a doorman. If a creature of just the right size lands on the petals the flower opens and enables the creature to enter. Too big and the petals crumple and the creature falls off, too small and the flower doesn’t open at all.

I will agree with you that the Eastern skunk cabbage flower doesn’t scream “flower” at first glance, but please stick with me. The flower of an Eastern skunk cabbage has a high chance of being the first flower you see in the spring. It’s known to flower through heavy snow! It can do this due to its unique thermogenic abilities.

Eastern skunk cabbage flower
Eastern skunk cabbage flower. Photo by Damon Billington.

The first hypothesis is that in combination with the distinct odor the plant gives off, the heat attracts pollinators. Now, these pollinators aren’t the cute honeybees you normally see at flowers, they are bottle and blow flies. These flies sense the heat and the odor, then fly into the flower thinking it is a rotting carcass only to be fooled into pollinating the Eastern skunk cabbage.

The other hypothesis is that it helps the plant grow by thawing the ground around the plant. These two hypotheses do not have to rule each other out though. The adaptation can be beneficial in attracting pollinators while also enabling the plant to grow earlier in the season.

Pussy willow
Pussy willow. Photo by Damon Billington.

Finally, we have the humble pussy willow. The pussy willow is so named because the fuzzy little flowers it has look like the feet of a teeny tiny cat. These fuzzy little flowers are funnily called catkins. A catkin is a thin, cylindrical cluster of flowers that often has small or little petals and are often pollinated by the wind. Why are these cute little catkins fuzzy? The answer is warmth.

The pussy willow flowers while it is still rather cold, and nature did what you do when you get cold and put on a jacket. The fluffy catkins act as insulation to protect the flower and enable the pussy willow to flower very early in the spring.

So, there we have three very different looking flowers that all take different approaches to ensuring the next generation of plants is born. Hopefully this peek into the very neat world of plants filled you with curiosity. Make sure to stop and smell the flowers when you are next outside! Who knows, they may have secrets.


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