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Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa: Flowers' reproduction

Georgia O'Keeffe supposedly hated flowers, but she painted many of them. But flowers aren't supposed to be beautiful for humans - they're the reproductive parts of plants.

Painter Georgia O’Keeffe allegedly said, “I hate flowers—I paint them because they are cheaper that models and they don’t move.” But she also said, “I decided that if I could paint a flower on a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.”

That may be true, but understand that the purpose of a flower is not to be beautiful for humans.

Flowers are the reproductive parts of many plants. The male parts of a flower are found in the grains of pollen. The female parts of the plant are located in the ovules in the center of a flower (on which, O’Keeffe did seem to fixate and for which, back in the day, her paintings were criticized as being “sexually suggestive.”)

Red Canna, 1919, oil on board, by Georgia O'Keeffe

Some plants self-pollinate or depend on the wind for pollination to disseminate pollen. But the flamboyant blossoms O’Keeffe painted surely depend on insects to carry pollen from one blossom to another. The shapes and vivid colors of these flowers attract certain insects.

Insects with long tongues favor flowers with funnel shaped blossoms. Most bees (and here in Michigan we have at least 465 species of native bees) need flowers with flat surfaces because they cannot hover. And most wild bees are extremely selective about which flowers they visit.

Our native bees and native flowers have co-evolved, so each flower is colored and shaped in such a way that a bee (or other pollinator) is directed to the flower center where pollination will take place.

O’Keeffe wrote, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I could not say any other way—things I had no words for.”

Flowers need no words.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.