The pollination process for flowers can sometimes be a deadly affair

The summer season is upon us and, for many, that brings about the excitement of planting new flowers in your garden and watching them grow. When I used to work at a garden centre, many years ago, I was always astonished by how many different flower species there were. According to a report by Kew Gardens (formally Royal Botanic Gardens) in the United Kingdom, there are about 369,000 of known flowering plants in the world. While some flowers are grown from seeds, others are created by a process called pollination.

To put it plainly, pollination is the creation of other flowers through “sex.” However, unlike humans, sex between flowers is quite complex and very scientific. For starters, some flowers can be asexual beings. They contain both male and female reproductive organs on the same flower, while other plants may be “male” flower parts and “female” flower parts. The male part of the flower is called the stamen. The stamen has two components: the anther, which is responsible for the protection of the pollen; and the filament, which holds the anther and keeps it attached to the flower.

The female component is called the pistil, which contains three components: the stigma, which is a little bulb that sticks out from the center of a flower; the style, which is a long stalk that the stigma sits on top of; and the ovary, which is at the base of the pistil. Inside the pistil are the ovules, which are the “eggs.”

There are two ways in which pollination can occur. The pollen from the male part of the flower can be inserted into the female part by pollinators—bees being the most popular. But other insects, such as moths, butterflies and wasps, can pollinate as well. Flowers also have the ability to reproduce themselves, through internal fertilization, if the flower has both male and female parts.

For the most part, the relationship between flowers and pollinators is a happy one. Bees especially love the taste of nectar and rely on it as a main food source. However, like some love affairs there is always a dark and twisted side. Not all flowers are pleasant to touch and smell. There is quite a lengthy list of flowers which are poisonous and can kill those who get too close. As deadly as these flowers can be, they too require pollination.

In order to attract pollinators, the poisonous flowers have become masters of deception. To see a perfect example of this, we can take a look at the death camas flower. While it looks pretty- small white flowers on a tall stem sort of like a wild lilac- pollinators beware. The death camas produce a nectar which smells sweet and appears innocent. However, that nectar is full of deadly toxins, which will cause the pollinator to die after shortly harvesting the flower.

But, not all is lost as one species of the bee has found a way to beat the death camas at its game. This bee is called death cama bee and is considered to be a miner bee. This bee will collect the poisonous nectar, and not be effected by the toxins. But how has the bee learned to outsmart the deadly flower? Well, this knowledge is acquired during the birth of the bee. After collecting the poisonous pollen, the female bee deposits a tiny ball of pollen into the soil. They drop one egg on top of the pollen and seal it in to create a “nest”. Once the egg hatches, the larvae eat the pollen. Once the toxins are injected they either become immune to it or are able to remove the toxic part of the pollen.

As ingenious as this may sound, there are hundreds of other poisonous flowers whose pollinators are not able to build up a natural defence. If you are curious to see some of these deadly beauties, there is a garden in the UK which houses them. Called the Alnwick Garden, Poison Garden, visitors can stroll the grounds and view the poisonous flowers. As a safety precaution there are plenty of signs reminding visitors not to touch or smell the flowers. Although some visitors have been known to faint while catching a slight whiff of some flowers. I suppose this is one garden where you must enter at your own risk. Unfortunately for pollinators, they don’t quite have the same warning and meet a dismal fate. 

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