The Reason for the Beauty of a Flower: Its Sex Life

Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This text was originally published in the newspaper Le soleil on January 21, 1995.

The stamen of the flower is its male sexual organ and produces the pollen. Photo: Ian Hayhurst.

Did you know that plants have a sex life? That’s what the flower is all about. It wasn’t created to please the eyes, but rather to attract insects and other pollinating animals. The shimmering colors, the intoxicating perfumes and the undulating forms that we know are only tricks to better achieve its goal: attract the right visitor at the right time.

Odor and Color

The desired visitor varies from plant to plant. If the flower is dressed in blue, purple or yellow, it will probably be pollinated by bees or wasps. If bees have a poor sense of smell and are not very interested in the scents of flowers, this isn’t the case for butterflies. The latter have a predilection for pink and orange flowers with a pleasant smell.

The color of the flower has an influence on the type of pollinator. Photo: Marco Verch Professional Photographer.

Dark colored flowers are difficult to see at night, so those that wish to attract moths are white to better reflect the little light available. And to guide the moths to their goal, these flowers often exhale a scent strong enough to embalm the whole house. So moths can spot them even from a great distance. Pollination is not only done by insects, it is also done by birds and even some mammals.

Hummingbirds don’t like pale colors and perfumes, they are rather attracted by orange and red, and their beak perfectly fits the shape of tubular flowers. Finally, there are pollinating bats, at least in warm countries. The flowers that attract them are often green and have a musky smell that most people find unpleasant.

The stapelia is pollinated by a fly. Photo: Ton Rulkens.

Cunning Flowers

Some flowers are even more subtle in attracting the right pollinator. Stapelia, for example, grows in the arid regions of Africa, where bees are rare. So this plant has adapted to attract one of the few insects available: the carrion fly!

Its flower is large and reddish brown, covered with fine hairs, simulating an animal carcass. To top it all off, it smells like rotting meat! The poor fly comes to lay its eggs thinking it has found a perfect place for their development, then leaves to find another flower, carrying the pollen. The eggs will indeed hatch, but the maggots, having nothing to eat, will die at the foot of the plant, providing the soil with a beneficial fertilizer.

However, it’s the orchids that win the prize for sexual cunning in the plant world. In many cases, the insect, while entering the flower, loses its footing on a slippery surface and falls into a cup of water. This liquid has intoxicating properties, and the insect, completely drunk, stumbles against the pollinia (mass of pollen) that settles on its body. Of course, he doesn’t regret his drunken experience and goes in search of a similar flower, ready to do it all over again! This is how he will carry the pollen from flower to flower. Other orchids shoot at their target: when entering the flower, the insect rubs against sensitive hairs, and the pollen is catapulted to it with incredible precision.

Oncidium (Oncidium polycladium). Photo: Franz Xaver.

All’s Fair in Love and War

The clever Oncidium (Oncidium polycladium) produces masses of brightly colored flowers that sway in the slightest wind, looking like a swarm of bees. The real bees, furious of this incursion in their territory, charge their enemies… and so pollinate the flowers. Finally, the Orphys produces flowers that resemble a female bee in every way, even down to the scent. The male tries in vain to copulate with the flower, accidentally takes some of its pollen, then moves on to another and another. The reproductive role of the flower is fulfilled!

So the next time you see a flower, don’t hesitate to admire its attractiveness, but remember that all this charm is not for your eyes only!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

4 comments on “The Reason for the Beauty of a Flower: Its Sex Life

  1. greatt

  2. Who knew plants could be so manipulative. Gotta love them.

  3. Christine Lemieux

    So interesting!

  4. Ann T Dubas

    So beautifully said!

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