Why are the First Flowers of Spring Often White or Yellow?

5932346222_4caa51feec_o
white flowers glow against a dark green background

 

The First Flowers of Spring and Attracting Pollinators

The first flowers of spring are often white or yellow because of who pollinates them. Most of the early spring pollinators are flies. Flies lack color vision, meaning they can’t see scores of colors the way we do.

White and yellow reflect plenty of light. White and yellow are reflected as very light “colors” against the green background of leaves of trees, shrubs, grasses, etc. All that green may just look dark and indistinguishable to flies.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis one of first flowers of spring

 

 

Flies will visit a range of colors, but they visit white and yellow flowers the most. Flies are the most frequent visitors to flowers and are misidentified as bees.

 

First Flowers of Spring Characteristics

Early spring blooming flowers in alpine meadows are often white or yellow. These flowers often have an open-shape. The flower can have a saucer or bowl shape. These open shapes allow a wide range of pollinators to access the plant’s pollen, nectar, resin, and oil.

 

American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons
American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) butterfly. Lycaenidae Butterfly Family). By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, via Wikimedia Commons

The pollinators with special features such as long tongues, heavyweight, and the ability to hover, can visit these flowers just like unspecialized pollinators can. 

And in early spring there are not many pollinating insects or birds around. A flower will take what she can get.

 

flat flower heads Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
Flat top, umbrella shaped flower clusters of Golden Alexanders in my garden. 

First Flowers of Spring: Key Features

To recount: White or Yellow Spring Flowers

  1. are highly reflective of light and appear bright in the landscape
  2. often have open shapes to be available to any pollinator that might be around in early spring

Most Posts on Pollination 

Pollinator Syndromes

Early Spring Butterflies

Early Spring Blooming Native Plants

 

Works Consulted

My primary resource for the article came from the book, “The Nature Handbook: A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors” by Ernest Williams, Jr. Oxford University Press, 2005. (Amazon.com affiliate link)

On page 159 in a section entitled, “8.11 White and Yellow Meadows”, he writes: “In contrast to the diversity of floral color and shape seen in midsummer, white and yellow saucer-shaped flowers dominate alpine meadows soon after snowmelt. Because flowers function to attract pollinators, the open shapes and absence of blues and pinks in early spring suggest that the early pollinators are small and attracted to the most reflective flowers.”

Further Information on Pollinators and Pollinator Syndromes 

These are Amazon.com affiliate links, of which I am an affiliate and receive small fees which support this blog.

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants by Heather Holm (excellent book)

Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide, Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies by the Xerces Society

Pollinator Conservation Handbook: A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, and Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects by the Xerces Society

2 comments

  1. Thanks, Donna, for yet another “that’s new to me!” moment. I knew flies were effective pollinators but not why. I do hope folks are reading your helpful posts, and thinking more about the amazing world around us.

    Being from a Toronto family, I was interested to see that Allison Parker, a grad student at the University of Toronto, had, with others, modeled the results, from the flower’s perspective, of flies versus bees as pollinators. Seems, at least in their study, that flies take much less pollen, and therefore make possible more visits by more pollinators than visits by bees. Good to see women, just as yourself, working with insects! Thanks so much!

    Here’s a link to a post on the UOT study.
    http://theseedsofscience.com/2013/06/16/87/
    And a link to one of Alison’s papers on the ‘cost’ of pollination for a spring ephemeral wildflower.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4984495/

    • Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words. I love those, “that’s news to me” moments, too. Here the “news to me” moment you helped me with.
      I went to the seeds of science website and read the article. So, bees may be better pollinators in situations because they don’t take pollen but add pollen to the flower on their visits. Bees collect the pollen and take it back to their nests. The pollen removed can’t be used to fertile other flowers. That is really something to think about as I add plants to my backyard naturalist’s garden. Thanks!

We're Listening

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.