“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe ~
When Georgia O’Keeffe painted the stunning floral portraits for which she was famous, she did so with the intent of expressing what she felt when looking at a flower, portraying it as she experienced it – layered, luxuriant, larger-than-life. She assigned as much significance to the details as to the whole, often painting less than the whole flower and using the outer edges merely to frame its inner beauty.
I’m a huge fan of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work – for so many reasons. The designer in me is completely enamoured by her attention to detail, creating texture so rich one can almost feel it. The gardener in me………well what gardener doesn’t love to look at big beautiful flower pictures? And as a horticulturist, I find her sensuous presentation of every ruffle and ridge, petal, sepal and stamen, to be a breathtaking study in flower anatomy. If one looks at these paintings from this botanical vantage point, a whole new appreciation of both painter and subject ensues.
The Birds and the Bees
I think to truly appreciate a flower one must first understand its role. A flower exists, not for the purpose of our enjoyment (much as we gardeners would like to think), but rather for the purpose of reproduction. Their brightly coloured parts aren’t intended to garner the oohs and aahs of our neighbours and friends, but to attract pollinators, like birds, bees and butterflies.
“Let me tell you ‘bout the birds and the bees
and the flowers and the trees
and the moon up above
and the thing called love”.
We all know those infamous Herb Newman lyrics, and what often follows is………the Talk. You know the talk of which I speak – the one your parents or grandparents, or teachers, had with you just as you were approaching puberty. Well here it is again – sort of.
Prepare yourself – I have graphic images.
Cross section of a ‘perfect’ flower, meaning it has both stamens (male) and carpels (female). Not all flowers are perfect – some plants have separate male and female flowers. In some cases, the entire plant is either male or female – these plants are referred to as dioecious.
So it goes something like this: A bee or other pollinator enters the interior of a flower in search of nectar and pollen. In the process of collecting pollen it inadvertently brushes against the stigma, thereby depositing the pollen which contains the sperm. A pollen tube then forms, growing down the style and transporting the sperm to the ovary where the ovules reside. The male sperm joins with the female ovule and voila, fertilization! Fruit and/or seeds then develop from the fertilized egg and these are dispersed by wind, rain, birds, etc., eventually settling into the soil where the seeds germinate. Plant grows, plant produces flowers, bees pollinate………..yadda yadda yadda. Did ya get all that?
Pretty in Pink – this pink hollyhock presents her best ‘come hither’ look, hoping to entice pollinators. The brighter pink veins add to her allure and serve to guide visitors in. Work it girl! Photo: Cathy Gaviller
Of course the bees have no idea that they’re participating in the plant’s sex life – they’re just there for the pollen. But they are vital to this courtship dance. In fact flowers get all dressed up in their most colourful outfits and put on their finest perfume to impress these pollinators – or any pollinator for that matter. Oh those fickle flowers.
Ah yes – success. Now that is one amorous bee! Photo: Cathy Gaviller
Come A Little Bit Closer Now
If we zoom in a little closer to have a really good look at the inner workings of these remarkable reproductive machines, you’ll see that the very heart of a flower is indeed a thing of beauty and something to be celebrated – sketched, painted or photographed. This was Georgia’s gift to the world – she made us really look at a flower.
A close-up of Hemerocallis ‘Strutter’s Ball’ reveals velvety ridges, sumptuous ruffles, delicate veins and arching stamens – worthy of Georgia’s paintbrush don’t you think? Photo: Sue Gaviller
Plants like the above-pictured daylily have large showy flowers which easily attract pollinators. Other plants, lilacs for example, have many tiny florets each with reproductive capacity. These florets are clustered together to form a large inflorescence which not only increases the chances of being noticed by passing pollinators, but vastly increases the opportunities for pollination. Most of us never really notice these tiny floral entities that make up the larger racemes, umbels and panicles, but they are miniature marvels that merit a closer look.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ – each tiny floret is picture-perfect in itself. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Zooming in even more we can get a detailed view of the various reproductive parts of a flower. The male parts are the anthers and filaments, collectively called the stamen. Anthers are the pollen producing organs and are often quite pronounced, hence they are usually quite recognizable.
The female parts – stigma, style and ovary, together make up the carpel. Often there are multiple carpels, which are jointly referred to as the pistil. If there is only one carpel, then the terms carpel and pistil can be applied interchangeably. Carpels come in all shapes and sizes. Some have a long tube-shaped style and a bulbous stigma. Others have a bulb-shaped style and fleshy stigma. Sometimes the style appears almost non-existent and the stigma is all that’s visible. While the shape is widely variable, the carpel can usually be recognized by the surface texture of the stigma, which will appear sticky, oily or waxy – this ensures adherence of pollen grains.
Hemerocallis ‘Little Grapette’ – note the pollen-laden anthers, long tubular style and the tiny stigma. Photo: Sue Gaviller
The bulbous stigma of Lilium longiflorum is quite large compared to that of the Hemerocallis in the previous image, but both stigma have the characteristic spongy, waxy surface for trapping pollen. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Lilium columbianum has very pronounced carpel and stamens. Here the pollen on the anthers has all but disappeared but grains of it heavily coat the sticky stigma surface. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Paoenia ‘Morning Lilac’ – a ring of bright yellow anthers atop pink filaments surrounds a group of carpels with pale greenish styles. The furled flaps of paler pink fleshy tissue are the stigma. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Paeonia ‘Tom Eckhart’ has a centre full of butter yellow staminodes – flattened sterile stamens that are the result of extensive hybridization Photo: Sue Gaviller
Rosa nutkana – pale yellow stamens surround a group of pale greenish carpels, of which only the stigma is visible. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Iris ‘Raspberry Blush’ – note the voluptuous centre pieces, called style arms, each of which arches over a male stamen. Photo: Sue Gaviller
The outermost layer of a flower is the calyx, which is made up of all the sepals. Just inside the calyx is the corolla which consists of all the petals. Ah yes, the petals – this is why we grow plants that flower right? Generally speaking the petals are the largest, showiest part of the flower (there are exceptions though). Biologically speaking they serve the purpose of surrounding and protecting the flower’s reproductive parts, as well as attracting pollinators with their colourful presentation.
The sepals on the other hand, are usually nondescript, green leaf-like units that surround and enclose the flower in the bud stage, as well as support the petals once they emerge. However, there are a number of plants that have very showy sepals, almost as showy as the petals – Lilium, Hemerocallis, Iris and Narcissus to name a few.
The petals of Rosa ‘Winnipeg Parks’ are bright and very flashy, whereas the pale gray-green sepals have very little ornamental value. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Daylily sepals, like this Hemerocallis ‘Chicago Antique Tapestry’, are the same colour and texture as the petals, albeit a little smaller. Photo: Sue Gaviller
The sepals of plants in the Iris genus are the downward-curving parts, called ‘falls’, and are every bit as beautiful as the upright petals or ‘standards’. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Some Irises have fuzzy caterpillar-like tufts along the midline of the sepals – these are known as ‘beards’. The Iris beard may serve to collect and protect pollen (note its proximity to the stigmatic lip directly above the beard) or it may simply provide a place for pollinators to alight and grasp onto. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Narcissus sp. has 3 petals, 3 almost identical sepals and an additional trumpet-shaped structure known as the corona. Photo: Pat Gaviller
This Bud’s for You
A flower begins as a bud – an unremarkable green protuberance that bears no resemblance to the flower it will eventually become.
Like all of the intersectional hybrids, Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’ has unique pointy buds. Photo: Sue Gaviller
I find flower buds to be as rewarding as the blooms, more so maybe. A bud is the promise of a flower and we experience it with all the anticipation of a bride-to-be. I doubt if I’m the only gardener who has spent countless hours peering into the depth of daylily foliage, gently separating the grassy blades looking for emerging bloomscapes. Or palpating Iris fans, feeling for the swellings of blooms-to-be. Or closely examining lilac buds to determine which will be leaves and which will be gorgeous fragrant blossoms.
I count the buds to see how many blooms I’ll be blessed with this year. I observe them daily, gauging their progress, watching them swell and elongate, slowly taking on a hint of colour. I daresay by the time my flowering plants actually bloom, I’ve spent so much time anticipating it that the experience is almost anticlimactic. Almost.
Left: Hemerocallis ‘Mary Reed’ – flower bud almost ready to open.
Right – Hemerocallis ‘Starling’ has luscious plump flower buds, as do most tetraploid daylilies.
Photos: Sue Gaviller
Today is Georgia O’Keeffe’s 125th birthday and it is in her honour I write this post.
I invite you to see every flower through new eyes and with deeper appreciation. Take a step into Georgia’s world.
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.