Why is Pollination Important for Native Wildflowers?

Series of pollinator and flower images.

mountain scene.
Photo by Jeff Motychak.

Virtually all of the world’s seed plants need to be pollinated. This is just as true for cone-bearing plants, such as pine trees, as for the more colorful and familiar flowering plants. Pollen, looking like insignificant yellow dust, bears a plant’s male sex cells and is a vital link in the reproductive cycle.

With adequate pollination, wildflowers:

  • Reproduce and produce enough seeds for dispersal and propagation
  • Maintain genetic diversity within a population
  • Develop adequate fruits to entice seed dispersers

Environmental Benefits of Pollination

Clean Air (Carbon Cycling/Sequestration)

mountain valley scene.
Photo by James Henderson.

Flowering plants produce breathable oxygen by utilizing the carbon dioxide produced by plants and animals as they respire. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been rapidly increasing in the last century, however, due to increased burning of fossil fuels and destruction of vital forests, the “earth’s lungs.” Pollinators are key to reproduction of wild plants in our fragmented global landscape. Without them, existing populations of plants would decline, even if soil, air, nutrients, and other life-sustaining elements were available.

Water and Soils

Flowering plants help to purify water and prevent erosion through roots that holds the soil in place, and foliage that buffers the impact of rain as it falls to the earth. The water cycle depends on plants to return moisture to the atmosphere, and plants depend on pollinators to help them reproduce.

Reference: Flowering Plants, Pollinators, and the Health of the Planet (Marinelli, 2005): Plant. 2005. Janet Marinelli, Editor in Chief. First American Edition. Dorling Kindersley Limited (DK Publishing, Inc.). New York. 512 Pages.

Cultural Importance of Pollination

Tsimshian-Styled Hummingbird and fireweed painting.
A hummingbird flits among the blossoms of a fireweed. This original design was done in the style of, and greatly influenced by, the delicate form, lines, and art of the Tsimshian and Tlingit peoples of southeast Alaska. Photo courtesy of Julie Thompson, Featherlady Studio.


Moth on a flower.

Native Peoples traditionally recognized the importance of pollinators:

  • Cultural symbolism
  • Food plants
  • Medicinal plants
  • Plant-based dyes

We explore only a few examples of culturally important pollinators or pollinated plants here. To learn more about culturally important plants and pollinators:

Cultural Symbolism

Butterflies

  • Raven’s spokesperson - Haida (Pacific NW)
  • Messenger (in dreams) from Great Spirit - Blackfoot
  • Earth’s fertility - Hopi “Bulitikibi” harvest dance
  • Flame, Teotihuacan (Palace of the Butterfly) - Ancient Mexicans (Olmecs, Toltecs, later Aztecs)
  • Ancestor - Sumatra, Naga (Madagascar), Pima (N. America)
  • Related to Morning Star - Arapaho, Mexecal

Moths

  • ‘Tun tawu = “goes in and out of fire” - Cherokee (North America)
  • Symbol of knowledge, guardians of gold dust of eternity - Yaqui (Mexico)
  • Powder - insanity (moth-crazy, sexual excess, incest, aphrodisiac) - Navajo (North America)
  • Guardian of tobacco (caterpillar of Sphinx moth) – Navajo (North America)

Hummingbirds

  • Basket weaving teacher - Taroscan (Mexico)
  • Courier of gifts to Great Mother - Pueblo Indian Tribe
  • Convinced gods to bring rain – Hopi and Zuni Indian Tribes
  • Sun in disguise (courting the moon) - Maya

Ethnobotany

Fun Fact

different varieties of corn.

Corn is mostly a wind- pollinated crop. Native peoples were the first to recognize the role of pollination and to plant corn in such a way that they could hybridize certain types of corn for particular characteristics and purposes. Native Americans are known as the “first hybridizers” for their scientific talents in cross-pollination and hybridization.

“Ethnobotany” is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. Since their earliest origins, humans have depended on plants for their primary needs and existence. Plants provide food, medicine, shelter, dyes, fibers, oils,resins, gums, soaps, waxes, latex, tannins, and even contribute to the air we breathe. Many native peoples also used plants in ceremonial or spiritual rituals. Examining human life on earth requires understanding the role of plants in historical and current day cultures.

Read more about Ethnobotany…

The Simple Truth: We Can’t Live Without Them!

The Simple Truth: We Cannot Live Without Them! cover
Get the brochure: The Simple Truth: We Can’t Live Without Them! (PDF, 1.0 MB)

Pollination is not just fascinating natural history. It is an essential ecological survival function. Without pollinators, the human race and all of earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive. Of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world, i.e., those that produce all of our food and plant-based industrial products, almost 80% require pollination by animals. Visits from bees and other pollinators also result in larger, more flavorful fruits and higher crop yields. In the United States alone, pollination of agricultural crops is valued at 10 billion dollars annually. Globally, pollination services are likely worth more than 3 trillion dollars.

More Fun Facts

vegetables.
  • More than half of the world’s diet of fats and oils come from animal-pollinated plants (oil palm, canola, sunflowers, etc.).
  • More than 150 food crops in the U.S. depend on pollinators, including almost all fruit and grain crops.
  • The USDA estimated that crops dependent on pollination are worth more than $10 billion per year.