They look like vaginas, cute butts, or penises: floral sex organs very often remind us of our own reproduction apparatus and therefore seem awkwardly appealing. But we are not the only ones intrigued by their fancy style: the pollen of many species, like that of grasses, cereal crops and trees are wind-disseminated, but most species use insects, birds, even us humans to distribute their pollen. The strategies they thereby employ are often fascinating, and the adaptions that have evolved in flowers as well as the diverse pollinators are astounding. It's all there: tiny landing strips for bees that lost their way, orchids with jaws, tiny hawk moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between 10 and 12 inches in order to reach deep into the nectar filled tubes of tropical flowers, plants that imitate the stench of carcasses in order to attract certain flies that just can't resist the odor and so unwillingly become deliverers of pollen. Everything goes in the world of flowers, as long as the major goal is achieved: fertilization, the distribution of genetical material.
Flowers deceive: since nectar, the number one attractor when it comes to lure insects into pollination, is a very expensive thing to produce (its production costs a lot of energy), some species only mimic those others that undergo the costly procedure for real. The benefit is lost on the bee or fly that merely act as pollen transmitters. Luckily, there are other floral hosts that take greater care of their visitors. Take arum maculatum, for example: this woodland plant quite common across temperate northern Europe heats up the tea room by fifteen degrees above ambient temperature and then offers the midges which, attracted by the heat, fly right into the tubelike container, an exquisite nectar that surely keeps them occupied until night, when the bristles that have kept them from escaping during daytime wilt, and the midges, all covered in pollen by that time, are being released into freedom again. Or what about the famous Brazilian philodendron selloum with its fabulous foot-long phallic spadix? During the two days, when this plant flowers, the spadix metabolizes in a way very similar to mammals: instead of having starch it produces something like fat and burns it, so creating a metabolism comparable to that of a small cat. But why, you might wonder.Jonathan Drori has the answer:
"There are beetles that love to make love at exactly that temperature, and they get inside, and they get it all on, and the plant showers them with pollen, and off they go and pollinate, and what a wonderful thing that is!". Sounds very sexy. There is yet another correlation to the oh so human world of love Drori delivers in a highly inspiring talk on TED: some important properties of flowers become visible only through the use of an ultraviolet filter that reveals the possible perception of, say, bees. Bees and many other insects can't see red light but are able to perceive various shades of ultraviolet. Under the ultraviolet light, the pretty but not exactly unsettling rock rose turns into an irresistible eye-catcher.
"The main use of that filters," Drori says, "is for astronomers to take pictures of the clouds of venus. Venus, of course is the goddess of love and fertility" and that, after all, is "exactly the flowers' story."