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"...the best (or at least most beautiful) part of gardening!"

Botanically speaking, the sole function of the flower is reproduction—a flower is simply a modified shoot bearing specially adapted leaves. We might like to think those beautiful colors and fragrances are there to please us, but flowers have evolved over millennia to attract pollinators, or otherwise ensure the mechanics of fertilization. (Fertilization and the role of flowers in plant reproduction are covered in detail in Exploring the Garden: Plant Relationships & Cycles.)

Flowers have adapted some very clever ways to attract pollinators. We’re all familiar with brightly-colored flowers that promise sweet nectar to foraging bees. In the process of gathering nectar, the bees inadvertently pick up pollen and carry it to the next flower, fertilizing it. But consider also the hammer orchid, whose flower evolved to resemble a female wasp to attract its pollinator—you guessed it, a male wasp. Or skunk cabbage, whose strong odor attracts pollinating beetles. And then there are the beautiful color patterns on foxglove and iris—like the lights on an airport runway, these patterns guide pollinators to the flowers’ nectar (and pollen).

Though there’s an almost endless variety of flower shapes, there are some common features that most flowers share.

Flower Parts

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The stamen is the male part of the flower; the pistil is the female part.

Plants that have evolved to be pollinated by the wind usually have relatively non-showy flowers. Think of grass flowers—those fluffy or spiky heads—or the flowers on many trees such as birches or walnuts. Though sometimes deemed "insignificant" by gardeners, these flowers too carry the responsibility for continuing the species.

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Flower Lures
We've mentioned bees and beetles as pollinating insects. Other important pollinators include butterflies, moths, ants, hummingbirds, and even bats! Different pollinators are attracted to different things—the scent, color, and shape of the flowers, or quality of nectar, for example. Think of some of the more interestingly shaped flowers in your garden. Then imagine how they might attract different pollinators. (For example, hummingbirds, with their long, slender bills, are attracted to trumpet-shaped flowers; flowers that bloom at night attract moths.)


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