Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Flower You Didn’t See

Most flowers are showy and they capture our attention during their designated bloom time. Their flowers turn to fruit of some kind (even if they are dry seeds like the big sunflower) and we make the connection that flowers make fruit. Sometimes the fruit is so subtle that we don’t even realize the plant made fruit. Other times the flower doesn’t get pollinated and fruit does not form.

Tiny flowers on black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

In some plants it is the flower that is so subtle that when fruit does form, we are mystified. I have heard this statement on identification forums many times: “This plant doesn’t flower but it has this fruit.” Well, unless the plant is a fern, it has a flower even if you didn’t see it.

Flowers on sedge

Grasses, sedges and rushes (which one might think are all “grasses”) are a significant group of plants that some people consider to be non–flowering plants. Rather than having showy flowers to attract insects, grasses have flowers without petals. This lack of petals facilitates the transfer of pollen through wind-pollination. Pollen is more easily discharged and received from flower to flower when petals are absent.

There is also a group of woody plants that are wind-pollinated. Like the grasses, they have flowers without petals. And like the grasses, these are usually the plants that cause allergies because their pollen is windborne: oaks, pines, mulberries, elms, hickories (including pecan) and sweetgums are the major contributors.  They produce a lot of pollen to ensure that some gets to where it needs to be.

Hickory (Carya spp.) flowers

Sometimes you only see the flowers of these trees when they fall to the ground (although some people still don’t realize what they are seeing).

Sweetgum (Liquidambar) flowers surrounded by male pine (Pinus) flowers

There are also some non-woody, non-grass-like plants that have flowers without petals. Ragweed is probably the most familiar one. It is also wind-pollinated.

Nyssa sylvatica fruit comes from tiny flowers (see 1st picture)
Most plants have insect-pollinated flowers, usually flowers with petals which are meant to attract insects. 

However, the flowers or petals are so tiny that humans overlook them. Rest assured though, if you see fruit then you know that the flower was able to catch the attention of an insect, even if it was a tiny one.

Black gum (Nyssa) is one such plant with tiny flowers. Another is poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Black willow (Salix nigra) doesn't have petals but it has nectar and that attracts insects like bees.

Female Salix nigra flowers in fruiting stage
Callicarpa americana flowers in July

The flowers of beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are rather small as well but are probably showy enough that people notice them.

So next time you think to say that a certain plant doesn't have flowers ... think again.

Bees love Ilex verticillata flowers





  1. Thanks for sharing the science, Ellen!

  2. I read your posts to the end, every time. Thank you!!

  3. Each time I see a fruit or bloom that I hadn't noticed before it reminds me how I need to be more observant when I am out in nature. Nice, educational post!

  4. Another content-dense blog that I needed for review, Ellen. Whenever I finish one of these, I'm surprised when I look back that it's not longer than it seemed. That's because there are no wasted sentences. Small talk is just not a forte of yours, is it? But good concise teaching about plants is! Okay, I gotta read this one more time.