Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In the red

In the 1940s, the New York Botanical Garden asked a thousand North American botanists and naturalists to list the most conspicuous and interesting wildflowers in their region. More than 500 people responded and the cardinal flower ran away with the show. Who can resist that color, a red beyond red? Prince-of-the-Church red. Fire-engine red. Chili-pepper red. There's nothing else quite like it, at least not in my neck of the woods.

Which is why I'm pleased to discover a new colony of cardinal flowers strung out along the drainage ditch behind the college library (thanks, Sue). Not quite sure how they got there. They love to grow alongside streams. The flowing water spreads their seeds, but I don't know of any plants upstream of this particular colony. A few other places on campus, yes, but not here.

For plants, green is the color of making a living, harvesting energy from the sun. Green is nine-to-five, nose-to-the-grindstone, earning one's keep. Red is the color of reproduction -- something to attract hummingbirds and moths, those necessary partners in cardinal flower sex. Red is the color of lip-sticked lips, long-stemmed roses and valentines. Brazen, scarlet-letter red. I've never seen hummingbirds hereabouts, so the pollinators must be daytime moths with long mouth parts, although I have never seen a moth at one of our rare blossoms. What a clever sexual apparatus! Every cardinal flower blossom has first a male stage, then a female stage. The blossoms have a long tube containing nectar. When a moth or hummingbird stops by to drink, its forehead touches the overhanging male organ, a brush covered with yellow pollen. Then, on to another blossom, in the female stage, where the overhanging organ has a sticky tip to mop up pollen off the pollinator's forehead. And the red? Come hither. Sip. And inadvertently play your role in the unending dance of sex that makes the world go round.