In most species of living creatures, in order to produce offspring, a male and female need to mate. Even without a biology class, it’s pretty easy to tell which is which at a quick glance, but do the same rules apply to plants and flowers? Plants have a unique method of spreading their genetic code, and it’s done through a process called pollination – from the Latin words for “fine dust” and “to be born.”Though there are many types of pollination, these types all serve an important function within the ecosystem. While some types of flowering plants self-pollinate, most rely on helpers from Mother Nature’s ranks to keep their genetic footprint strong and enduring.
How Does Pollination Start?
While most people may recall the male reproductive part of a plant’s flower is called the stamen, did you know that the pollen-producing area is called the anther? It’s here that the pollen, which contains the fertilization properties that will later create plant life, are made. Most people are familiar with this substance, which is often spotted as a bright yellow dust-like residue on cars, windows, and nearby smooth surfaces. The anther will create an abundance of pollen in order to maximize the chances of producing offspring through plant reproduction.
A Little Magic: The “Three Ws” Of Pollen Propagation
Once the pollen is ready, the process turns to the “Three Ws” in order to make the proverbial magic happen. As adept as the plant may be at making pollen, it’s not going to go very far without assistance – it’s literally rooted to the ground, after all. The three Ws – wind, wildlife, and water – give this pollen a helping hand by moving it around; great distances in some cases. This pollen is brushed off onto the ovule through pollen tubes, after which the fertilized plant will begin growing fruit and seeds.
Wind: If you’ve ever made a wish by blowing on a dandelion puffball, you’re already familiar with the important role wind plays in plant propagation. Breezes can be gentle enough to spread pollen among plant members in a close-knit network, or strong enough to send pollen flying miles away. This ensures maximum biodiversity by mingling different strains of DNA among plants while still keeping smaller local biosphere communities healthy and thriving.
Wildlife: While bees undoubtedly do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to moving pollen, they have a cast of supporting characters as well. Larger types of pollinators like wolves and foxes will collect pollen and transfer it on their fur as they walk by, while birds will carry pollen on their feathers as they eat smaller bugs crawling around on flowers. Even the simple marching path of an ant just trying to get back to the colony has the potential to transfer pollen. By locating this precious substance in a hub of physical activity for a lot of wildlife, a flowering plant maximizes its chances to spread its genetic code far and wide.
Water: Although far less common than its two companion pollination methods, some aquatic plants do rely on water currents to pick up, carry, and deposit pollen in order to grow and reproduce. Arguably, even the water-growing flowers that rely on insects to pollinate still rely on water in the broader sense; some pollinating insects in the pollination cycle are drawn to water to mate, lay eggs, and propagate young of their own.
Different Flower, Different Pollinators
Flowers have grown through some astonishing evolutions in order to stay strong and healthy over thousands of years. From various shapes, colors, and scents, to different blooming methods, each is designed to attract and entice the type of pollinator the plant requires in an intriguing symbiotic relationship.
- Some plants have grown to produce a fragrance that closely mimics rotting meat; these plants rely on curious flies in order to spread their pollen.
- Some plants grow a bright, vivid red blooms; these capitalize on the specific visual hue ranges of birds like the hummingbird, which darts flower-to-flower at a dizzying, pollen-depositing pace.
- Some plants have evolved to produce pollen from large clusters of smaller flowers, enabling the wind to efficiently dislodge and spread the pollen inside across a large area quickly.
- Some plants produce a great deal of highly-scented, ultra-sweet nectar in order to coax bees to return over and over, ensuring that the plant’s pollen is carried out and away frequently.
- Some plants bloom later than most of the other flowers in their geographic area, ensuring that they won’t have to compete for their pollinator’s attention.
With so many innovations essentially hidden inside a simple, unassuming blossom, it’s easy to see why plants become something of a biological wallflower (no pun intended)!
The Miracles of Pollen: The Genetic Key to Tomorrow
Pollen helps communities like plants, trees, vines, flowers, and more grow large, healthy families that feed everything in the food chain, from animals up to humans. Without pollen, one out of every three bites of food eaten in America would be gone completely – which is why it’s so important to respect and support nature’s most efficient process of procreation. The importance of pollination rewards strong, healthy plants that have evolved to spread their genetic code far and wide – whether it’s on a breeze, a honey bee, or a spring shower.
- “What is pollination?” Gapp.org, (no publish date), https://gapp.org/what-is-pollination/. Accessed May 30, 2019.
- “What is pollination – a diagram for kids.” Eden project.com, (no publish date), https://www.edenproject.com/learn/for-everyone/what-is-pollination-a-diagram-for-kids. Accessed May 30, 2019.
- “Plant Fertilization: Process & Definition.” Study.com, (no publish date), https://study.com/academy/lesson/plant-fertilization-process-definition-quiz.html. Accessed May 30, 2019.