Sunday, 14 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: Seductive Lucifer


It's been a good year for Crocosmia. They seem to have grown as big and gaudy and lush in all the torrential rain we've been having as they would in a normal year in a Cornish hedgerow. I can hardly ever remember them loking this good (that is, outside the former TSW broadcasting region).

But however much they look at ease in the West Country they are actually, Kaiser-Chiefs-style, breathtakingly far away from home. As evidenced by this spectacular photo of Crocosmia "Lucifer", with its chief pollinator: a hummingbird.

The photo comes from one of my favourite blogs in the entire world, the University of British Columbia's Botany Photo of the Day. Every day they feature a new flower, with enough written detail to get you intrigued. This one certainly put a new slant on a plant I'd begun to think of as a Cornish local. It amazed me to see the Crocosmia with this tiny, precise flyer making its fuel stops.

Hummingbirds are a bird we never see in the UK, disappointingly, but in California they are common - I've even seen them on a wintry November afternoon in San Francisco. Yet in California the Crocosmia is even further from home than it would be in Newquay; the plant is originally from Africa, and the plant's original pollinators were sunbirds, tiny little things pretty much like Hummingbirds. The one difference is that sunbirds prefer to perch while feeding, and a Crocosmia stem is just stiff enough to take the weight of one of those tinies.

To be seductive to the miniature nectar-feeding birds, the plants take some serious steps. They time their flowering to the birds' breeding season; they make their nectar highly sugary to keep those little wings flying. Most importantly of all, they are bright, flaming red. Birds have their finest hue discrimination (I'm quoting Wikipedia here, does it show?) at the red end of the spectrum, so it pays to make the flowers as pillar-box, Routemaster Red as possible.

But what's in it for the plant? Well, while craning their little beaks around inside the Crocosmia's corolla, the tiny birds touch various protuberances that efficiently wipe pollen all over the bird before it flies off to another flower. A seductive red leads to a successful fertilisation. Job done.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Mosquin and the UBC Botany Photo of the Day

For an exploration of seduction of a more human kind check out day two of The Independent's "Love & Sex series".

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