At first glance, alpine wildflowers are simply beautiful. Get a little closer and you can see how delicate and complex they are. Learn a little bit and you will discover that there’s a lot more going on that meets the eye.
I’m talking about their adaptations. Take, for example, the yellow violet. If you look closely, they have stripes on the flower petal. They are called nectar guides because they literally act as a guide for pollinators to find the nectar and pollen like a landing strip for a plane. One of my favorite flowers, elephant heads (each tiny flower on the stalk actually resembles the head of an elephant), lures pollinators to its “trunk.” When the unsuspecting insect lands on it, the spring-loaded stamen shoot out and SLAP! The insect gets covered in pollen.
Another flower, the alpine buttercup, has a trick for staying warm in the chilly tundra. Its cupped petals are shiny, which directs sunlight inward toward developing seeds. It’s like it is its own tiny greenhouse! The old-man-of-the-mountain flowers’ trick is to always face east. That’s so they catch the first rays of the sun in the morning and pollinators will visit them first. The artic gentian, on the other hand, has a different trick for attracting pollinators. They are the one of the last to bloom in the short alpine season and are nicknamed the “boo hoo” flower because summer’s almost over. Being a late bloomer, though, is a survival trick…it gets more attention from pollinators!
And then there are many beautiful, beautiful alpine flowers that survive on outright thievery. One of my favorites, the Indian paintbrush, is among them. Deep underground, paintbrushes hook their roots to other plants. Then they steal nutrients. And water! Apparently the amazing elephant heads are thieves too.
Next time you see a field of wildflower, you can bet there’s some amazing inventing, trickery, and thievery going on!