Gardening

Flowers That See the World Upside Down

In red: columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), in greenish white: smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

I once read a comment advising you to cut off the unsightly flowering stems of hostas, as their flowers are of less visual interest…

Really?

Cut off those flowers that aren’t facing the right way for the pleasure of our giant human eyes looking down on the floral world from above?

How extreme is that?

I suspect the Laidback Gardener community doesn’t share this point of view, but curious as you are, you’re probably wondering why some flowers are turned downwards. After all, it may seem counter-intuitive, since we imagine pollinators (butterflies or bees) more interested in “easy-to-reach” plants.

In fact, there are two general reasons that have influenced the evolution of these downward-opening flowers.

Behind the scenes. Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)

Pollinators

It’s wrong to think that pollen spreaders all come from the sky, and even more wrong to think that they prefer to land on a flower that’s easy to see. Among pollinators, we often forget ants, flies, wind, birds, bats, mammals (which brush against flowers in the forest), etc. And while some plants are more generalists, others have evolved to be more specific.

And while some plants are more generalist, others have evolved with a single pollinator and their flower is perfectly adapted to that single species. A particular shape or smell makes the flower difficult to access or uninviting to other species.

Large-flowered bellwort t (Uvularia grandiflora) is a Quebec spring plant species that is visited only by large Bombus insects (so-called bumblebees).
The long, virtually closed petals make nectar very difficult for weaker insects to access.

Lors de ma dernière visite au Jardin botanique de Montréal, j’ai pris plaisir à observer ces fleurs qui se tournaient vers le bas et j’ai eu la surprise de trouver certaines d’entre elles… pleines de fourmis! C’est logique quand on y pense: pour attirer un insecte vivant au sol, il faut tendre notre nectar vers celui-ci!

Ants at work in the flowers of Andromeda campanulata (Enkianthus campanulatus).

I’ve also observed bees having a field day in upside-down flowers. Depending on the flower, the vibration of the wings can release the pollen, which then falls onto the forager’s legs and abdomen.

Find the bee, it’s in the foreground, but still well hidden in its comfrey flower (Symphytum sp.)!

Protection for Pollinators

The flower can also offer protection by hiding the pollinator from the eyes of flying predators, or even, according to one study, allow insects to keep warm by attracting the sun thanks to dark-coloured petals!

Clematis hirsutissima

The relationship between plants and pollinators is a close one. Even if, for us, a flower is just a flower, the same cannot be said for the little pollen workers eager for nectar.

Protecting Yourself From the Elements

Wind and rain are two factors that can be, let’s face it, quite violent (more so than bird droppings). A plant whose nectar has been washed away will no longer attract food-seeking gourmets, and a flower that has been bent, or even torn off, will not be visited either, or at least much less than flowers that have remained in good condition.

Never mind: like the umbrellas in British films, flowers turned towards the ground keep their pistils dry!

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)

Of course, there are thousands of plants with these “weeping flowers”, and each one has its own particularities. The relationship with predators and protection from Mother Nature’s mood swings are the two most common reasons for their orientation, but it may be that somewhere in the jungle, an obscure species is turned towards the ground for another reason. Nature never ceases to amaze!

Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans)

P.S. If you were at the Montreal Botanical Gardens that day and saw a strange girl lying on the ground taking photos of flowers facing down… That was me!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

5 comments on “Flowers That See the World Upside Down

  1. Mary L Discuillo

    Fushias are my absolute favorite. Nature (god?) always seems to have a plan. Pretty cool!

  2. Great article. So many variations in nature. Thank you.

  3. Annie Brelih

    And further to the flowers of Hostas, they are very beautiful, especially the stripes of the purples. The bees love them, and sometimes pierce the narrow tubes rather than crawl in!

  4. Suzy Charto

    Cannot believe how day after day you come up with new interesting topics. Found this one fascinating. Thank uou

  5. Glen Spurrell

    Thank you, Audrey, for yet another excellent article. I’ve never really thought about the reasons behind, and the benefits of, hanging flowers. But to see a hummingbird feeding at any of these is a wonderful thing!

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