Botany 101: Flowers

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This hibiscus is a typical single flower: five petals and clearly defined pistil and stamens in the center. Source: Petr Kratochvil,

We probably all learned some basic botany back in school … and have almost certainly forgotten some of it. In a blog about gardening, therefore, it can’t hurt to do a bit of revision from time to time. So here is a bit of basic botany about flowers.

What Is a Flower?

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The structure of a typical flower. 1. Receptacle. 2. Sepal. 3. Petal. 4. Stamens. 5. Pistil. Source: Petr Dlouhý, Wikimedia Commons

The flower is the reproductive structure of higher plants, the place where seeds, which will produce the next generation of the plant, are produced.

The flower is carried on a small stalk called a peduncle that joins a receptacle: the base of the flower.

The outer envelope of the flower, especially visible when the flower is in bud, is called the calyx. It generally consists of green, leaflike sepals, although they are sometimes colored. The flower sometimes has one or more colored leaves called bracts arising from its base. The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), for example, is well known for its colorful bracts.

The inner envelope of the flower is called the corolla. It is often colored and is made up of petals.

Sometimes petals and sepals look much alike. This is the case with lilies, tulips and daylilies, for example. They’ll then be called tepals.

The Sex of Flowers

Most flowers are bisexual (hermaphrodites) and bear both male reproductive organs (stamens) and female reproductive organs (pistils).


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Structure of a stamen. Source:

Stamens consist of a filament bearing an anther at its tip. The latter contains pollen sacs which are, as the name suggests, filled with pollen (male gametes). Pollen is usually carried from one flower to another by insects (less often by birds or mammals) or by the wind, more rarely by water (a few aquatic plants). There can be from one to over one thousand stamens per flower.

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Structure of a pistil. Source:

The pistil (the female reproductive organ) is made up or one or more carpels. When it carries only one carpel, it’s said to a simple pistil, but a pistil can also be compound and have several carpels. The carpel is made up of three parts: a swollen base called the ovary, a narrow, tubelike style and, at the tip of the style, a stigma. The ovary can be simple or compound and contains the ovules that will become the seeds once pollinated. The stigma is knoblike and has a sticky surface. It serves to receive pollen grains.


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The pollen grain forms a pollen tube through which the sperm cells descend to fertilize the ovule. Source:

Once the pollen grain is deposited on the stigma, it emits a pollen tube that extends to the ovary and the sperm cells descends the tube to fertilize the egg. An embryo develops that turns into a seed. When the seed is mature and falls to the ground (or any other suitable surface), it sprouts and produces a new plant.

Sex Can Be Complicated

Most flowers (about 90% of them) are hermaphroditic: they house both sexes and are said to be perfect flowers. Other flowers are imperfect: they are entirely female or entirely male. Sometimes female flowers—those of the kiwi (Actinidia spp.) for example—have visible, but non-functional, stamens. The opposite is also possible: male flowers can have visible but non-functional carpels.

Some plants bear separate male and female flowers on the same plant. They’re called monoecious, from mono, for one. Squashes and cucumbers as well as begonias are monoecious.

If a plant is said to be dioecious, that means is it carries male and female flowers on two different plants. (Note the “di,” for two, in the name.) The plant that bears only female flowers is called gynoecious; the one that bears only male flowers is androecious. Remember when the nursery guy told you to plant at least one male holly to ensure your female hollies produce berries? That’s because hollies are dioecious. Willows, poplars and yews are other examples of dioecious plants.

The More the Prettier

Most flowers are single flowers. They bear the “usual” number of petals for the species: five is most common, but three, four and six petals are also frequent and there can be many more.

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This double tulip is sterile: all its reproductive organs have been turned into petals, a common situation with double flowers. Source: Max Pixel

Double flowers though have a far greater number of petals than normal. Double flowers are rare in the wild, as they tend to be sterile or nearly so, but gardeners like them because they are more colorful than regular flowers and often longer lasting. Usually double flowers show up as mutations, but doubleness can also be an inheritable trait.

Double flowers can originate from different plant parts. Sometimes they come from petals that multiply abnormally and other times, from extra sepals, but in most cases, double flowers result from the stamens that turn into petals, in which case they are called petaloid stamens or just petaloids.

Semi-double flowers have more than the usual number of petals single flowers bear, but less than double flowers. Notably, they usually have non-mutated stamens clearly visible in the center of the flower and are therefore quite fertile.

Flower Heads

An inflorescence is the arrangement of flowers on a plant and includes stems, stalks, bracts and flowers … and the possibilities of how flowers are placed—singly, in umbels, in cymes, in spikes, etc.—are almost limitless. This is a subject for a future Botany 101 blog, but for now, I simply want to clarify the situation of flower heads, because they cause much confusion among gardeners.

A flower head, also called capitulum, is the compound inflorescence seen in the huge Asteraceae family (daisy family), containing more than 22,000 species. It’s confusing, because while it looks like a single flower—apparently a circle of petals surrounding carpels and stamens—it’s actually something quite different.

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A typical Asteraceae inflorescence. Source: and

Instead the flower head is made up many tiny flowers (sometimes called florets) closely packed together. Some of the best-known examples are sunflowers, dandelions, daisies and thistles. Often, there are two types of florets: tubular florets in the center that form a disc (they’re called disc flowers) and that are generally hermaphroditic and fertile and ray flowers with one large lobe that form a circle around the disc, giving that typical daisy appearance and thus mimicking the petals of simple flowers. Often, but not always, ray flowers are sterile and serve only to attract pollinators to the fertile disc flowers in the center.

Theoretically, you shouldn’t call an Asteraceae “bloom” a flower, but always use the terms flower head, inflorescence or capitulum, but I must confess that I break this rule regularly. Indeed, often voluntarily. It’s too easy to call something that looks like a flower a flower. I do it when I have no specific reason to point out the difference, although I sometimes do slip in the word inflorescence just so any botanists reading the text know I really do know the difference.

And there you go. Hopefully this article helped demystify the complex subject of the flower!20171205B Petr Dlouhý, Wikimedia Commons


Double Flowers: Bad News for Pollinators


Double roses are beautiful… but most have nothing to offer to pollinators.

Gardeners love double flowers. And why not? With their dense flowers jam-packed with petals, they really do stand out from the crowd. Moreover, double flowers are generally sterile or nearly sterile. Since they aren’t pollinated, they quite often remain open longer than single flowers, another advantage for the home gardener.

For insect pollinators, though—bees, hoverflies, butterflies, etc. —, double flowers are bad news.


A typical single flower. In double flowers, the pollen-tipped stamens are largely converted into petals, leaving little to no pollen for insects to gather.

Most of the time, the mutation that leads to double flowers converts stamens into petals. But in the wild, the stamen—typically a filament with a yellow anther—has a role to play. It provides pollen… exactly what many pollinators come to look for in a flower. Indeed, many pollinators depend entirely on pollen as a food source. To them, double flowers are a disaster: there is no pollen… or at least, there is less. (Some double flowers still have at least a few functional stamens, but often they are hidden by too many petals and difficult to access.)

When it comes to those creatures that come to flowers to looking for nectar, as is the case with butterflies, long-horned bees and hummingbirds, the situation is little better. The flower’s nectaries (organs that produce nectar) are generally found at the very base of the flower… therefore hidden by all those dense petals. As a result, access to the nectaries is difficult and sometimes impossible. So, double flowers are not a good source of nectar either.

With so many pollinators in dire straits, especially among bees, whose populations are collapsing worldwide, double flowers would appear to be yet another nail in their coffin.

A Waste of Time and Energy

Very often, pollinators continue to visit double flowers even if they can’t feed on them. That’s because the flower continues to signal to them, due to its color or odor, that it’s ready for a bit of pollination, yet when the insect visits and tries pushing the petals aside, it finds nothing to eat. You’d think the bug would be intelligent enough to learn from that experience and move to another plant. Indeed, some pollinators do have that kind of smarts, but others just never seem to learn from their bad experiences. So they go from flower to flower on the same pollenless, nectarless plant, wasting their energy, until they finally find flowers on a nearby plant where pollen and/or nectar are accessible.

Semi-Double Blooms


There are pollen-covered stamens in the center of this semi-double rose.

Semi-double flowers are intermediate between single flowers and double flowers: only some of the stamens have been converted into petals. Depending on the variety, they may produce as much pollen and nectar as a single flower or less, and their anthers and nectaries may be easy to reach or not readily accessible. Usually, if you can clearly see yellow anthers in the center of a flower, it will be suitable for pollinators.

No Need to Panic

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The average flower bed has plenty single flowers rich in pollen and nectar.

If your flower bed is composed only of double flowers, it really would be a disaster for pollinators, but that’s rarely the case.

The typical flower bed usually contains a wide variety of plants, many with single flowers. In fact, in most gardens, there are many more single flowers than double ones. Also, the concentration of blooms in a flower bed is much greater than it would be in the wild (or in a lawn!). As a result, flower beds are such a popular and reliable source of food for pollinators that many are willing to travel long distances to visit, sometimes even several kilometers.

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The bee orchid (Ophrys scolopax) looks and smells like a female bee. Male bees attempting to mate with it do its bidding, transferring pollen… but get nothing in return, neither sexual satisfaction nor pollen and nectar.

And besides, don’t think that only domesticated flowers attract pollinators without giving them their due. Nature is full of flowers that lure insects with promises of pollen and nectar, but don’t deliver the goods. Many orchids, in particular, are specialists in visual, olfactory and sexual lures: they promise the world and organize things so they ensure their own pollination, but the insect still leaves empty-handed.

In Your Garden

Most home gardeners are rendering a service to threatened pollinators simply by putting in a flower bed, but if you specialize in plants renowned for their double flowers (peonies, roses, carnations, camellias, etc.), it would be nice of you to include a fair share of “simpler” flowers (ones with yellow stamens visible) to the mix to support your friends, the pollinators.20170420A