Flowers that are visited and/or pollinated by hummingbirds typically fit the following description: petals are brightly colored, often red; petals are fused to form a long, narrow tube; a “landing pad” is absent; abundant nectar is produced deep within the flower; and fragrance is weak or nonexistent. Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) is a typical example of such a flower, and hummingbirds are indeed among its most common visitors. But there is so much more to the story.
Scarlet gilia (also commonly known as skyrocket) is a wildflower in the phlox family (Polemoniaceae) that occurs in many parts of western North America. It is considered a biennial or short-lived perennial. It spends the first year or so of its life as a compact rosette of fern-like leaves. Later it sends up a branched, flowering stem that can reach 5 feet tall or more. The flowers are slender, trumpet-shaped, and composed of five fused petals that flare outward creating five prominent, pointed lobes. They are self-incompatible and require a pollinator in order to set seed. The stamens of an individual flower produce mature pollen before the stigma of that flower is ready to receive it – this is called protandry and is one mechanism of self-incompatibility.
The flowering period of scarlet gilia can last several months. Depending on the location, it can begin in mid-summer and continue through the fall. During this period, it produces dozens of flowers. It is also at this time that it runs the risk of being browsed by elk, mule deer, and other animals. This doesn’t necessarily set it back though, as it has the potential to respond by producing additional flowering stalks and more flowers. Its flowers are visited by a variety of pollinators including bumblebees, hawkmoths, butterflies, syrphid flies, solitary bees, and of course, hummingbirds. But hummingbirds, in many parts of scarlet gilia’s range are migratory, and that’s where things get interesting.
Early flowers of scarlet gilia are usually red. As the season progresses, flowers slowly shift from red to pink. In some cases, they lose all pigmentation and become white. In the early 1980’s, pollination biologists Ken Paige and Thomas Whitman set out to determine the reason for this shift in flower color. They spent three years observing a population of scarlet gilia on Fern Mountain near Flagstaff, Arizona. They noted that the change in flower color corresponded with the migration of hummingbirds and that the now lighter colored flowers continued to be pollinated by hawkmoths until the end of the flowering season.
A series of experiments and observations led them to conclude that hummingbirds prefer darker colored flowers and hawkmoths prefer lighter colored flowers. By shifting to a lighter flower color, scarlet gilia appeared to be taking advantage of remaining pollinators after hummingbirds had migrated. They also concluded that the color change was not the cause of hummingbird migration since other flowers with nectar-rich, red, tubular flowers (specifically Penstemon barbatus) remained available in the area throughout their migration. It was also noted that the flowers of scarlet gilia shifted the timing of nectar production, presumably to better match the behavior of hawkmoths which are more active in the evenings.
No plants were observed shifting from light colored flowers to dark colored flowers, which further supported their conclusion. They also compared the population they studied to populations that do not lose their hummingbird pollinator and noted that when hummingbirds remain, the flowers of scarlet gilia don’t change color.
But just how effective are hummingbirds as pollinators of scarlet gilia? A seperate study carried out by a different group of researchers determined that, while hummingbirds were “the most common floral visitor,” long-tongued bumblebees were the more effective pollinator when it came to pollen deposition and seed set. The study involved observations of a scarlet gilia population in Colorado over a 5 year period. Considering how well the floral traits of scarlet gilia match up with the hummingbird pollination syndrome, it is surprising to learn that long-tongued bumblebees are comparatively more effective at pollinating them.
This study provides further evidence against strict adherence to pollination syndromes and the most effective pollinator principle, both of which imply specialized plant-pollinator interactions. (I wrote about these topics here, here, and here in earlier Year of Pollination posts.) In their discussion, the authors propose two possible explanations as to why scarlet gilia, despite its phenotypic floral traits, does not appear to be specialized. One explanation is that “natural selection favors a specialized [floral] morphology that excludes all but a single type of visitor, but there are constraints on achieving this outcome.” Perhaps the pollinators aren’t cooperating; their opportunism is leading them to “exploit flowers on which they can realize an energetic profit, even if they do not mechanically ‘fit’ very well.” The “sensory abilities” of the pollinators may be “broadly tuned,” making it difficult for plants to develop flowers with “private signals detectable only by specific types of pollinators.”
The second explanation proposed by the authors is that “selection favors some degree of floral generalization, but that flowers can retain features that adapt them to a particular type of pollinator in spite of generalization.” In the case of scarlet gilia, specialization could be detrimental because after they send up their flower stalks, they are doomed to die. This gives them only one season to set seed, and if hummingbirds are either not available that year or only available in limited numbers, a scarlet gilia population can lose the opportunity to reproduce. As the authors put it, “the fact that individual plants enjoy only a single season of reproduction, suggests the value of ‘backup’ pollinators.” This may also explain why flower color shifts in order to take full advantage of hawkmoth pollination after hummingbirds are gone.