Do all flowers have a perfume?

Some people assume that all flowers should have a perfume. They imagine that a flower with no scent is an older flower, whose fragrance has evaporated. But that may not be the case. A flower with a fragrance is a flower with a mission.

Flowers emit fragrance for genetic reasons – specifically, to attract a pollinator such as insects, birds, bats, and other mammals. These creatures transfer pollen from one flower to another on the same plant, or to a flower of another plant of the same species.

Flowers without a fragrance depend on self-pollination. In self-pollination, there’s a transfer of pollen from the male stamen to the female stigma of the same flower. Most flowers with a fragrance are what are called “generalists.” Any number of different creatures can serve as pollinators.

But there are some plants that emit a fragrance to attract a specific creature. For example, the common yucca – found throughout the southwestern U.S. – attracts only the yucca moth. Researchers still don’t understand why or how some plants and insects evolve together.

So the next time you inhale the heady perfume of a gardenia, remember – while the fragrance may be pleasurable, it’s strictly business.

August 9, 2008

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