…But Sometimes They’re White

I generally use this blog platform to share ideas and information about prairies, but now and then I also use it as a platform for asking questions.  Today is an example.

I want to know why many wildflowers, especially those with pink, blue, and lavender-colored blossoms, sometimes produce white flowers.  As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen a white sunflower or goldenrod flower, or a white variety of any flower that is normally yellow, orange, or red.  However, it’s not that uncommon to see white gayfeather, verbena, or spiderwort blossoms.  What’s up with that?

Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), showing the the typical pink flowers on the left and a white variant on the right.

I’ve looked for information on this, and talked to a few friends with horticultural/botanical knowledge, but haven’t really learned what I want to know.  I’m interested in the mechanics of how these typically pink or bluish flowers turn out pink, but I’m actually more interested in why it seems not to happen with all species – especially those with yellow flowers.

Prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) might be the species with which I see this phenomenon most frequently.  It is an annual/biennial that is typically purplish in color, but whenever I find a big patch of them, I can usually find a few plants with white flowers.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) sometimes has white flowers – I used to have some in my home garden.

Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) can sometimes have white flowers as well.  I wonder if the white blossoms are any more or less attractive to pollinating insects?

In addition to wondering about how the white flowers occur and why it seems to happen mainly in bluish and purplish-flowered plants, I’m curious about a few other things.  Is the white color variant recognized differently by bees and other pollinators?  Are there other differences (nectar or pollen amounts, odor, or flavor) that correlate with those color differences?  If you harvest seed from the white flowers, do at least some of them grow into more white flowers?

Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) and bumblebees.  Most pitcher sage plants are blue, but at least a few grow white blossoms now and then.

I’d sure appreciate any insight on these topics.   I was surprised not to find answers readily available online, but maybe I just wasn’t framing the questions correctly?  Thanks.

Voting Results: Prairie and Bee? or Bee in Prairie?

Back on August 4, I posted a selection of similar images and asked for help selecting the best of four compositions.  As has been the case in the past, there was no clear consensus, but there was a winner.  That winner was PHOTO NUMBER FOUR.

Bee on blazing star #4. (Vertical - just to complicate things)

This was the most popular choice from the voting.  (Though not by a landslide.)

Photo number four got 25 votes, followed by photo number one with 22 votes.  Photos number two (7 votes) and three (3 votes) lagged far behind.  However, it was interesting that all four compositions got votes, and even numbers two and three had very passionate supporters.

Bumblebee on blazing star. Photo #1.

This one (photo number one) finished a close second to photo number four.

For many people, the choice came down to whether or not the image was a photo of a prairie landscape with a bee in it (#1) or a photo of a bee in a prairie landscape (#4).  Some people liked the “surprise” of seeing the bee upon looking closely at a prairie.  Others enjoyed the more exposed bee in the vertical photo.

For what it’s worth, the photos were presented in the order I took them in the field.  I personally like number one best, but mainly because it best represents the feel I was trying to capture when I first saw the flowers and then discovered the bee.  I do like number four too, and remember making the decision to drop a little lower with my camera so the bee would be more visible against the sky.  …Of course, I like number two and number three too…

So, thanks for your help.  This is why photographers usually take many photos of the same subject, experimenting with various compositions.  It’s hard to know what you (or others) will like best later on.  This is also why I’ve never enjoyed photo contests.  It’s relatively easy to separate images that are technically good from those that aren’t, but the process is very subjective from there.  In some ways, a big selection of photos is much like an ecosystem – you can argue that one species/photo is more important than another, but it’s really the abundance and diversity that makes both a photo contest and ecosystem work!