From Flowers to Food
By Erin O’Neill
About one third of food production globally is possible because of animal pollinators including bees, birds, butterflies, bats, and mammals. These animals move pollen grains between flowers to initiate plant reproduction. Our food originated from flowers, and pollinators are essential for turning these flowers into food. To truly appreciate the significance of pollinators we need to understand what flowers are and how pollinators play a role in plant reproduction. Then, we can begin to understand how vital these organisms are to us and our food systems.
Flowers offer the world significantly more than natural beauty. Flowers are composed of sterile petals as well as male and female reproductive parts. Many of us think of flowers as nature’s artwork due to their showy petals, but the primary purpose of flowers is to mediate plant reproduction through pollination by attracting animal pollinators. Insects and birds use colorful and intricately designed flower petals as “targets” during flight or as a place to rest while collecting pollen or nectar from the flowers. Flowers have other organs besides the sterile petals, such as male anthers (pollen producing organs) and female stigmas (pollen receiving organs). Once pollen moves from the anthers to the stigma – this is the process of pollination – fertilization of the ovules follows. The fertilized ovules mature into seeds, and the ovary that holds seeds, matures into a fruit. Fertilization is how flowers turn into fruits, which ultimately leads to plant reproduction.
Animal pollinators are crucial to the process of pollination and plant reproduction. Some plants are capable of self-pollinating, meaning they can fertilize themselves to produce seeds. However, many plants are only capable of cross-pollinating, meaning they must obtain pollen from another flower of the same species to produce seeds. Because plants cannot move in the same way we can, cross-pollinating plants must rely on some sort of vector to move pollen such as wind, water, or animals. Roughly 85% of flowering plants require the help of animal pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another. Pollination is usually just the consequence of animals visiting flowers for pollen and nectar. As pollinators visit a flower to collect these nutritious rewards, they can become dusted with pollen. When the pollinator moves onto the next flower, this pollen can be transferred to a female stigma. Without this work by animal pollinators, flowering plant populations would decline and most of the world’s ecological diversity would follow suit.
Pollinators are a critical part of a successful ecosystem, and as a result play a key role in our global food system. Animals contribute to pollination of hundreds crop species including fruits, nuts, seeds, and coffee. Additionally, more than half of the world’s diet of fats and oils such as canola, sesame, and sunflower oils, come from animal pollinated plants. Insect pollinators alone contribute more than $29 billion to US farm production each year. Visits from pollinators can result in larger and tastier fruits as well as higher crop yields. These trends have been seen across small and large farms making it critical to keep pollinators safe for global food systems and small-town economies alike.
Animals pollinators face alarming threats such as climate change, habitat destruction and disease. Losing our pollinators would cause complete ecological collapse and failure of our food systems. In other words, we cannot live without pollinators. This year, consider planting native flowering plants, ending pesticide use in your yard, or volunteering at a local pollinator garden. At a minimum, next time you are sipping your morning coffee, or enjoying an afternoon snack, remember that your food may have started as a flower.
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By Ron Krupp
Native pollinator plants have long been ignored in our landscapes, but that’s changing. They are by nature, hardier, better adapted to climate change and provide critical habitat for wildlife. Plus, they have attractive flowers, colorful berries and fall foliage. Over winter, I love to observe the red stems of the native Red Osier dogwood in my community garden.
Douglas Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home describes how nonnative plants have low resource value for our native animals and insects but as well, displace our valuable native flora. He says that we don’t have enough wild places left to allow nonnative plants to thrive.
The growing demand for native plants in ecological landscaping, including pollinator habitat gardens, has led to the selection and breeding of native cultivars. A native cultivar or “nativar” is a cultivated variety of a native plant, that has been selected by humans (in nature or through repeated selections in a breeding program), cross-bred, and/or hybridized by botanists and plants breeders seeking desirable characteristics that can be maintained through propagation.
The flowers of Native Cultivars may vary from the native species in size, shape, abundance, color, and bloom time—all attributes known to influence pollinator visitation. In addition to floral traits, native cultivars are sometimes selected for disease resistance, and more predictable sizes and shapes than their wild relatives, making them more desirable landscape plants. But native cultivars can also be less hardy and may prefer different soil moisture and fertility than the species, and most serious of all, may not be as attractive and useful to pollinators.
The use of Native Species once made this land a rich source of life for its indigenous peoples and, later, for European colonists and their descendants. That is no longer the case. Today, most of the surviving remnants of the native flora that formed them have been invaded by alien plant species. Plus housing developments like the “Oak Parks” and “Fox Hollows” models have been built across the country
The transition from alien ornamentals to native species will require a profound change in our perception of the landscaping value of native ornamentals. Europeans first fell in love with the exotic beauty of plants that evolved on other continents when the great explorers returned home with beautiful species no one had ever seen before. It quickly became fashionable and a signal of wealth and high status to landscape with alien ornamentals that no one else had access to. As the first foreign ornamentals became more common in the landscape, the motivation to seek new alien species increased. Even today, the drive to obtain unique species or cultivars is a primary factor governing how we select plants for our landscapes
Native plants tend to grow vigorously without requiring much fussing. They generally take climatic extremes in stride. Most are major attractions for butterflies, birds, bees and other pollinators because they provide shelter for these beneficial garden visitors. In my community garden there are many native bumblebees, but there numbers are diminishing due to pesticides, developments, climate change and the loss of open-pollinated true native species. .
As development and subsequent habitat destruction accelerate, there are increasing pressures on wildlife populations. As a gardener, you can increase your love of plants and nature by planting pollinator native plants. For the first time in history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener. They now have become important players in the management of our nation’s wildlife and can make a difference in the future of biodiversity by growing native species plants.
I’ve been an organic gardener for 30 years and for the past five years, I’ve been growing native pollinators at the Tommy Thompson Community Garden including New England asters, phlox, coneflowers, bee balm, and milkweed. Milkweed, an old-fashioned perennial attracts pollinators like Monarch butterflies also known as the “milkweed butterfly.” So why not grow a pollinator garden? Every little bit helps.