The Sterile Flowers of Hydrangea

Flowers are essentially billboards. They are saying to potential pollinators "hey, I'm full of energy-rich food and totally worth visiting." However, flowers are costly to produce and maintain. Reproduction isn't cheap, which has led some plants to take a more cost effective rout. In the genus Hydrangea, this means producing large, showy sterile flowers that draw attention to their smaller, less gaudy fertile flowers. 

These sterile flowers are technically colored up sepals. They don't produce reproductive structures or pollen. They are simply calling cards to insects that food is nearby. In the wild, Hydrangeas produce relatively few of these sterile flowers. Apparently it doesn't take much to draw insects in. The horticultural trade has shifted this balance to an obscene degree. When you look at a cultivated Hydrangea with its giant pom-pom looking corymb you are looking at a sterile structure that offers little if anything for pollinators. 


This is a shame really because wild Hydrangeas are quite a boon for insects. Everything from beetles to bees visit their flowers. From the moment they open until the last one is fertilized, these shrubs are buzzing with activity. If you have the choice of a native Hydrangea over a cultivar, consider planting the native instead. You and you local pollinators will be happy you did. Here in North America there are at least four to choose from - the smooth Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), the ashy Hydrangea (Hydrangea cinerea), the oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), and the silverleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea radiata). All of these occur east of the Mississippi and are largely denizens of the southeast. 

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An Orchid With Body Odor

Aside from ourselves, mosquitoes may be humanity's largest threat. For many species of mosquito, females require blood to produce eggs. As such, they voraciously seek out animals and in doing so can spread deadly diseases. They do this by homing in on the chemicals such as CO2 and other compounds given off by animals. What is less commonly known about mosquitoes is that blood isn't their only food source. Males and females alike seek out nectar as source of carbohydrates.

Though mosquitoes visit flowers on a regular basis, they are pretty poor pollinators. However, some plants have managed to hone in on the mosquito as a pollinator. It should be no surprise that some orchids utilize this strategy. Despite knowledge of this relationship, it has been largely unknown exactly how these plants lure mosquitoes to their flowers. Recent work on one orchid, Platanthera obtusata, has revealed a very intriguing strategy to attract their mosquito pollinators.

This orchid produces human body odor. Though it is undetectable to the human nose, it seems to work for mosquitoes. Researchers at the University of Washington were able to isolate the scent compounds and found that they elicited electrical activity in the mosquitoes antennae. Though more work needs to be done to verify that these compounds do indeed attract mosquitoes in the wild, it nonetheless hints at one of the most unique ruses in the floral world.

Photo Credit: Kiley Riffell and Jacob W. Frank

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