Quirks and Quarks

When the desert doesn't bloom, fake flowers are a scientist's solution

Studying the interaction between pollinating birds and cacti results in a crafty scientist turning to fake flowers to get results when the real ones refuse to bloom

A crafty scientist fools pollinating birds by pinning flowers on cacti

York University graduate student Malory Owen takes notes in front of a about the buckhorn cholla cactus in the Mojave Desert (Malory Owen)

Quirks & Quarks is devoting its first episode of the season to the challenges and adventures of scientists working in the field.

When uncooperative weather meant cactus flowers refused to bloom on time, a researcher from York University was forced to fake it, and that meant a long drive through the desert to the nearest craft store.

Mallory Owen, a graduate student in the Department of Biology at York University in Toronto, travelled to the Mojave desert in California this spring and summer to study the relationship between birds and cacti. Owen wanted to understand more about how  birds help cacti reproduce by pollinating their flowers, and by eating their fruit and dispersing their seeds.

The Mojave desert's Granite Mountains, where Malory Owen worked this summer (Malory Owen)

The blooms of the Mojave desert 

Fragile deserts like the Mojave are under pressure in a myriad of ways. Climate change is making deserts even hotter and drier and destabilizing desert ecosystems. Development of suburbs and highways on desert landscapes encroaches on plant and animal habitats.  Invasive species, mostly noxious weeds, can crowd out existing plant growth.

By investigating how young cacti are able to spread themselves around a desert researchers like Owen hope to understand better how to maintain or heal delicate desert ecosystems like the Mojave. 

A desert full of life

This summer Owen's focus was on trying to understand what strategies cacti have evolved to encourage birds to pollinate their flowers. Cacti bloom after the spring rains, producing delicate but brightly coloured flowers. 

Owen was interested in investigating whether shrub-like cacti do better at attracting pollinating birds by having more flowers on a smaller plant, or by growing larger branches with, potentially fewer flowers. 

Unfortunately Owen's arrival in the Mojave in late April coincided with a spell of cooler than normal daytime temperatures. She didn't have warm enough clothing, which was bad enough, but the bigger issue was that the species of cactus she wanted to study - the buckhorn cholla - was not in bloom.

She had just a ten day window for her study and it was looking like her time would expire before flowers were to appear on the cactus.

A buckhorn cholla cactus with real blooms (Malory Owen)

It was time to improvise. Owen hopped in her car and drove four hours to Santa Barbara where she found a Michael's craft store. She cleaned out their stock of a little more than 100 orange fabric flowers.

She then drove back to her desert study site and pinned the craft flowers on cacti.  She sent photos of the result to colleagues who apparently couldn't tell that her fakes were the real thing.

Owen pinned fake fabric flowers - purchased at a local craft store - to cactus to see if they would attract pollinating birds. (Malory Owen)

Faking it with flowers 

As it turned out, Owen's fellow scientists weren't the only ones being fooled. Within seven minutes of her pinning the last flower on one cactus, a hummingbird showed up to try to sip nectar from the fake flowers. And it wasn't alone.

Over the next ten days, several species of pollinators visited the fabric flowers, some returning with regularity, despite their disappointment. In fact, when cacti finally did bloom later in May, Owen did a comparative study. Much to her surprise, the fake flowers were visited more often than real ones by potential pollinators.

Within 7 minutes of pinning fake flowers on a cactus Owen spotted a hummingbird attempting to sip nectar (Malory Owen)