By Susan Morgan
With the start of the new season, we shake off the winter blues and look forward to the feelings of rejuvenation and rebirth with greener grass underfoot, new growth from once-dormant perennials and trees, and the abundance of spring flowers. Horticultural therapy clients are now able to start putting their plans for outdoor gardens and other warmer season activities into action.
In looking at the spring garden, my clients have asked “What is the purpose of a flower?” or “Why do plants make such uniquely different flowers from each other, like a tulip versus an iris?” The season’s abundance of flowers provides a multi-sensory opportunity for clients to observe them firsthand and learn more about the various (and remarkable) ways in which plants make more of themselves. Some plants rely on a pollinator, such as bees, butterflies, or bats, while others are self pollinating. Other plants are pollinated through wind or water. Some plants only bloom during evening hours when their nocturnal pollinators are active.
One opportunity for closer examination is to study how some flowers “make friends with,” or attract, their pollinators. After all, a flower doesn’t just pick up its roots, walk up to a beehive, knock on the door, and say ‘Hey bees, come pollinate me!’” Flowers have to entice their pollinators to them, and considering the variety of plants in bloom at any one time, the competition can be fierce. So plants employ their own unique ways in which to make their flowers appealing to pollinators. Generally speaking, in these relationships, flowers benefit from the pollination mechanisms a pollinator makes happen, while pollinators take the food and nourishment that flowers have to offer.
Take a look at just a few strategies that plants may employ to lure in their pollinators.
Fragrance: Different flowers around the world produce distinctive odors – some pleasant, others not so pleasant to our own senses – that help lure in their pollinators. Spring blooming flowers, such as lilacs and roses, often have a fragrance that is enticing to bees, while also pleasing to many people. Yet other flowers produce unpleasant-to-us odors, including some exotic plants like the infamous Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) whose smell is compared to rotten meat and attracts indigenous flies.
Flower shape: The shape of flowers can help attract their pollinators while at the same time making it easier to feed. Some flowers, like Salvia, often have tubular shaped flowers that are positioned on a flower spike so that hummingbirds can fly right up to the flower, insert its beak to feed, move backwards, insert its beak into another nearby flower, and so on, without having to land on the flower to feed. Other flowers provide landing pads on which a pollinator, like a bee or butterfly, can land to feed.
Color: Flower color helps attract certain pollinators, such as red flowers attracting hummingbirds and white flowers attracting moths at night. Flowers may even produce colors not visible to the human eye but detectable by pollinators. Ultraviolet colors on flowers not only lure in bees but essentially provide a bulls-eye landing pad directly to center of the flowers – the location of the nectar (and coincidentally, its reproductive parts). It is fascinating to look at online photographs showing the ultraviolet patterns on flowers that bees can see, but that we cannot see with the naked eye.
A combination of the above (or more) strategies can help lure in pollinators. For example, hummingbirds are often attracted to flowers that are red in color and tubular in shape. Or, take into account the unique example of orchids. Possibly the world’s largest family of plants, orchids provide a special opportunity to illustrate these strategies in action. For instance, the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) has flowers that mimic the specific pheromone smell, shape, and color of the female of its pollinating bee species, luring unsuspecting male bees and depositing pollen onto the bees when they attempt to mate.
Applications for Horticultural Therapy Clients
Offer an interactive display of live samples (cut flowers or potted plants) and/or photographs of flowers that illustrate the diversity in nature. Include a mix of flowers that are colorful and not-so-colorful, recognizable or never-before-seen, fragrant or odor free, large sized or diminuitive, and have other characteristics. Tour the garden and look for a variety of blooms, including irises, bleeding hearts, fruit trees, or even dandelions, to cut and create rustic bouquets on the spot. Don’t have many flowers yet in the garden? Research pollinator friendly flowers, including native plants, for your area, and plant a variety of seeds and transplants in the garden.
When we wonder, study, and marvel at the variety of flowers and the various strategies they employ to attract their pollinators and reproduce, this provides opportunities to shift the focus on ruminating thoughts of self to thoughts of the external world. It can also open up the conversation to various ways in developing relationships with others or perceptions of self-image and how others see us. Just like us, each plant has its own way of adapting, living, and surviving within its environment. What works for one plant does not work for another.
Practitioners should determine the appropriateness and relevance of the topic(s) for certain individuals and groups and take care in guiding the conversation in a meaningful, productive manner. Also pre-screen the plant material for offensive odors, toxicity, and other characteristics that may detract from participants’ experiences.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Orchids and Their Pollinators. By David Horak.
United States Forest Service. Plant Pollination Strategies.