Outdoor fun meets hands-on geography when kids study wildflower adaptation on the trail. In spring and summer, we see lots of wildflowers in nature and we usually marvel at their colors or their shapes, without really considering the why of their location or their shape. Somewhere along the way, these wildflowers have adapted to their geographical environment and what the eye sees on the trail is only the finished (or transitional) product. You’ll never look at wildflowers the same way after you’ve studied their adaptation strategies.
Wildflower Adaptation Study Process
To study wildflower adaptation with the following activities, head to your local park during wildflower season and while hiking at slow pace, keep a lookout for bright colorful spots. Bring a notepad and a pen to jot down observations. For better results, try to visit the same area several times–early in the season, mid-season and late in the season–so that your kids can compare quantitative results as real scientists do. At the end of your study period, your kids can sit down and talk about their observations, discussing how they illustrate wildflower adaptations.
What is an Adaptation?
The National Geographic Society defines an adaptation as a mutation, or genetic change, that helps an organism, such as a plant or animal, survive in its environment. Due to the helpful nature of the mutation, it is passed down from one generation to the next. A really easy way to understand adaptation is the cactus. The cactus lives in deserts, where only limited numbers of plants and animals that are able to survive. To adapt to its dry environment, the cactus stores the water in leaves, stems or roots.
What other examples of adaptation can we find with wildflowers?
Adaptation Activity #1 | Reproduction and Pollination
In order to reproduce, some wildflowers have adapted to attract pollinators and get their pollen from one plant to another. When you are out with your kids, ask them to look for the following pollinators in nature:
- insects (bees, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles)
- birds (hummingbirds or other small birds)
To attract insect or bird pollinators, some plants produce a nectar and they even adapt to attract the same pollinators repeatedly to up their chances of pollination. For this activity, use the following questions as guidelines:
- Can you see any pollinators around this wildflower?
- Which parts of the flower are pollinators attracted to?
- How can pollinators spread pollen from one plant to another?
- Does the same wildflower attract pollinators equally during its flowering phase?
Examples of Wildflower Adaptation for Pollination
To further the discussion at home, here are some real-life examples of wildflower adaptation.
- NECTAR LOCATION. Nectar of Queen Anne’s lace flowers (picture above) is right at the base of its tiny flowers, where pollinators with short proboscises (mouth parts) such as honeybees, ants, wasps, flies, and beetles can reach it when they crawl on the flower.
- HIDDEN NECTAR. The long, curving columbine flower complements the long tongue of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. By concealing the nectar deep within its trumpet-like blossoms, the columbine prevents animals who are not its pollination partners from accessing the nectar.
- PETAL FLEXIBILITY. Petals may serve as landing platforms for visiting insects, and some function in the pollen transfer. For example, when a bee lands on the lower petal of the snapdragon, its weight causes the stamen to swing down and dust the bee with pollen.
- PETAL STRUCTURE. Petals of many plant species have lines or other marks that guide the pollinator to the nectar. These markings may not be visible to the human eye.
- UV LIGHT. Insect pollinators see color differently than we do; they are sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light. To humans, a buttercup appears a uniform yellow, but to a bee’s eyes the flower’s center reflects UV light and forms a dark center, like a bullseye.
- FLOWER COLOR. Bees are attracted to blue and violet flowers, while hummingbirds are usually attracted to red flowers. As it turns out, red flowers are typically loaded with especially rich nectar, instant energy for the fast-moving hummingbirds.
- SMELL. A flower’s scent also attracts pollinators. Honeysuckles are known for their sweet smell on a midsummer night. Wouldn’t you know it, nighttime is the best time to attract the honeysuckle’s pollinators, not humans but nocturnal moths. Other plants smell like rotten meat in order to attract their pollinators: flies.
Adaptation Activity #2 | Habitat
Depending on where plants grow–their habitat, wildflowers have adapted to survive to specific sets of conditions.
- FORESTS. Forests pose a real problem for wildflower survival, as big trees block out a lot of the sunlight. To grow bright colored flowers with food for pollinators, plants need a lot of energy and since that energy comes from the sun, forests are a challenge.
- DESERTS. Because of their extremely dry conditions, deserts pose a different set of challenges for wildflowers–too much sun, not enough water.
- RAINFORESTS. Rainforests have mild to hot and humid climates where it rains almost every day. Trees can grow very tall and the forest floor is very dark.
Examples of Wildflower Adaptation to Habitats
By visiting different habitats, you may be able to observe different adaptation strategies for wilsflowers, such as the following.
- WOODS. Bluebells are well adapted to life in woodlands. In the spring, they flower before the surrounding trees come out in full leaf, which allows them to complete their life cycle while light levels are high.
- MOUNTAINS. The edelweiss, a common alpine flower, has adapted against the cold and ultraviolet radiation by covering its leaves and petals with dense hair. The petals’ white color helps to reflect strong sunlight which might harm the flower.
- . The yucca moth pollinates the yucca flower while she lays her eggs. In turn for her good deed, the yucca moth larva can feed on the developing seeds.
- REDWOOD FOREST. Because deep shade creates cool, moist conditions most of the year, redwood-forest-floor plants have broad, water-wasteful leaves with maximum surface area to trap as much of the sun’s light energy as possible. Redwood Sorrel (oxalis), which produces three-petaled violet flowers in the spring, has the ability to fold its leaves at night when needed to preserve moisture.
- TROPICAL RAINFOREST. The flower of the Amazon water lily, which only blooms at night, lets off a unique butterscotch and pineapple scent to attract pollinators, and it actually traps those pollinators inside the flower to give them all the pollen at one time. Once pollinated, the white flower turns pink.
More on Wildflowers
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Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.