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The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 8: About Flowers

June 10, 2022

By Birgitta Jansen

A closeup of a purple orchid-like flower with yellow accents
Calypso bulbosa, also known as Fairyslipper.

Please note: Since this essay was written in early June, there have been significant changes on The Hill. The photos are all of flowers that were out in May and early June. More to follow soon!

Sunshine in the morning and cumulus clouds slowly drifting in late morning and early afternoon—that seems to be the way it is these days. There is a slight breeze and the temperature is still cool; it’s definitely not summer yet.

As I made my way up Campground Trail as I do now two or three times a week, I reflected on how familiar this area has become. Even though I’ve hiked it for years, it’s different now. Initially I saw The Hill as a somewhat over-used and stepped-on place, which in some ways it is. But when I started writing the Chronicles, I looked around and started to see it in a different way. I slowed my pace. Now I’ve become acquainted with specific trees, rocks, bushes, and a few specific places along my route. To my surprise—and delight—I have found a place that is full of life and forever changing. And this spring, the flowers are the highlight of Sunflower Hill.

A closeup of a vivid blue flower
Upland larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)

We call the realm of flowers and plants “botany.” But the plants don’t care much about what we call them or how we see them. Humans have an interesting relationship with plants. We eat them, use them for many other purposes, plant them, move them around in our gardens, and admire them. Having said that, as Michael Pollan questions his book The Botany of Desire, did we cultivate the potato or did the potato cultivate us? This is another interesting question to ponder while walking the trail on The Hill. Pollan resolves the issue by describing the process as “coevolutionary.”

But the bottom line is that plants want to survive and grow. That’s where their efforts go. Therefore, it is pollination that is most important to plants. Without that, a species’ longevity is in question.

Each plant species has to find its niche within a particular ecosystem and establish a relationship with pollinators that are part of that ecosystem. (Or do the plants arrive first and then the pollinators?) A number of years ago, someone told me that yellow flowers are so common is because that is the color most easily seen by insects. Many of the flowers on Sunflower Hill are indeed yellow.

Small yellow flowers
Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

As I walked along and turned right on Jimmy Russell Road to make my way to the Sunflower Hill Trail, I thought it would be interesting to explore this question further. Does it matter what colour a flower is?

As I find out later after doing a bit of research, yes, it does. For starters, plants can’t move about very well to find the necessary partners to assist in reproduction. So they have developed a multitude of ways to attract the animals, mostly insects but also bats, birds, and some others depending on the ecosystem. The pollinators don’t care that the flowers are using them for their own sexual purposes because they are after the nectar that the flowers provide. Many flowers have ingeniously developed nectaries, which are specialized structures in the flower that produce nectar. And then there are the many different shapes, patterns and colors of flowers. These are not random. Instead, they are specific strategies developed to attract pollinators whose task it is to pick up the pollen and distribute it to as many other plants as possible.

A purple violet
Early blue violet (Viola adunca)

There are flowers with shapes and patterns that serve as nectar guides and let the pollinators know where the nectar is. But one of the most common strategies developed by flowers to “communicate” with pollinators is the use of colours. The brighter the colours, the more attractive they are to the pollinators. Bees, for example, like strong blues and violets. Butterflies love bright yellow, orange, pink, and red. However, like many other insects, they seem to happily visit many different coloured flowers. Bees and some other insects not only have colour vision, but they can also see under ultraviolet light.

Meanwhile, hummingbirds go for the red, pink, fuchsia or purple flowers, whereas moths and bats don’t see colours. Therefore, most of the flowers that rely on night pollinators like moths and bats are white and instead rely on their fragrance as an attractant. However, this does not mean that all white flowers are dependent on night pollinators—many insects are generalists.

A closeup of Saskatoon blossoms
Saskatoon shrub (Amelanchier alnifolia)

And there’s more. As far as we know, plants have developed specific times during the year that they bloom to avoid too much competition for the same pollinators. Some bloom early in the season, like the glacier lilies (yes, there was a patch of them on Sunflower Hill), and the Calypso orchids. Soon thereafter we see dandelions, wild strawberries, kinnikinnick and Oregon grape flowers, blooming Saskatoon bushes, and so on. About mid-May, the balsamroot celebrated spring and are still decorating hillsides in vibrant yellow. Now into June, I am already starting to see some different varieties.

The numerous ways that flowers have developed to ensure pollination and therefore reproduction is absolutely amazing. Some scientists have even come to question if plants are intelligent. Plant intelligence would not be defined in the same way that intelligence is understood in the human world, but plants know what they need to know to survive.

Pink Kinnikinnick blossoms
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

I used to look at flowers and admire their beauty. Now, when I look at the multitude of flowers on Sunflower Hill, I am in awe of all I see.

But as I walk the Sunflower Hill Trail to Duck Pond Trail and back down, I wonder where the pollinators are. The insects are not abundant and I see no bees. This spring has been cool and everything appears to be delayed. Let’s see what happens next!

A closeup of small white flowers
Small-flowered woodland star (Lithophragma parvillorum)

All photos by Birgitta.The images above are taken with a specialized macro lens, which means the flowers are shown larger than you see them along the trail. You can also click on the photo to enlarge the image to full screen.


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