Ten Tiny Catapults

By Amy Renfranz (dearnaturalist@gmail.com)

Article Published: May. 22, 2013 | Modified: May. 22, 2013
Ten Tiny Catapults

The mountain laurel’s stamens are posed and ready for an unsuspecting pollinator.

Photo submitted

Soon to bloom in the High Country are the magnificent mountain laurels. Many locals recognize the shrub, but few know of the amazing way that it interacts with pollinators.

Mountain laurels are part of a large family of plants, Ericaceae. This family also includes rhododendrons and azaleas.

There are more than 1,300 species of plants classified in the Ericacea family. Because many of them are evergreen, as are our mountain laurel and rhododendron, they do not have to expend energy every year to completely produce a new set of leaves.

Instead, they can focus their efforts elsewhere, and often outcompete deciduous shrubs for space and sunlight.

The mountain laurel bloom is light pink to dark pink. Oftentimes, shrubs in the sunny spots on the edge of the forest are much more intensely colored.

The blooms grow in thick clusters at the ends of the branches. Together, they are a glorious sight. The next time you are near a laurel in bloom, take a closer look.

You will first notice that each bloom is shaped like a bowl with five lobes.

Now, take a closer look.

You will observe the bloom’s stamens (the male parts of the plant). There are 10 of them, and each one is arched back into its own corner of the flower petal.

Now, wait for a bee to land on the flower at hand, and you will be in for a surprise.

Watch as the bee’s weight sets off a trigger within the bloom. One or more of the stamens will spring from their pits and, quite literally, hit the bee on the head and back. When contact is made, the stamens release pollen.

The pollen-lathered, dazed and confused bee will eventually make its way to another mountain laurel bloom, and cross pollination occurs.

If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (dearnaturalist@gmail.com) All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails.

Amy Renfranz is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Association Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina.

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