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On Swallowtail Butterflies and the Western Red Lily

Large flowers like western red lilies attract large pollinators.

In mid-continent, one of the largest is the ruby-throated hummingbird, but like most hummers it prefers to access flowers from the side or bottom. It can’t dip its bill into a blossom that points straight up. One of the next largest pollinators in the Aspen Parkland prairie is the swallowtail butterfly, a black and yellow striped beauty whose wingspan would fill the palm of my hand. The four curled petals of a lily flower facing up at the sky make a platform perfectly suited to the swallowtail. It lights on the blossom and feeds, picking up grains of pollen as the undersides of its wings brush softly against the open anthers. Some of those pollen grains may land on the stigma of another flower as the swallowtail moves around from plant to plant. Once it reaches another flower’s stigma, the pollen grain germinates. From there it becomes one of those microscopic miracles of nature we love to watch in time-lapse nature films. The germinated grain forms a pollen tube, which elongates until it penetrates the style, the female receptacle leading to the lily’s ovary. Once it finds its way into this inner chamber, the pollen tube will deposit sperm cells in a precise spot within the embryo sac, accomplishing its task of fertilization.

To manage this tricky bit of navigation down the style into the ovary, and then through the embryo sac, the pollen tube is following the siren song of chemicals coming from the ovules, the very source of the flower’s maternity.

We think of that last step as the sexual moment, but the meeting of sperm and egg that fosters new lily seeds starts with a lot of other call-and-response connections that in the broader sense are expressions of the eros that lives in all creatures.

Something summons the lily up from the ground.

In earlier times a hunter wanting to attract buffalo might have lit the prairie on fire, burning off the thatch from previous years and nurturing a sprout from a bulb scale tossed aside by a vole. Sun brings the lily to bloom, bloom brings butterfly, butterfly brings pollen, and little eggs inside the lily bring the pollen tube down into the place where lilies begin.  It is a circle of creative, erotic connection that is merely one paradigmatic sample of the generative, evolving life of the planet that continues to unfold because the loveliness of creatures attracts the kinds of exchanges that lead to the making of more lovely things.

© Trevor Herriot
Regina, Saskatchewan

From The Road is How

Photo Credit:

Swallowtail butterfly visiting western red lily. David Kaposi photo, Creative Commons

Did you know ..

One of the delights of summer in Aspen Parkland prairie is the sudden appearance of the Western Red Lily on grassy hillsides and meadows. Known to many simply as the “prairie lily,” it is Saskatchewan’s provincial flower. It thrives on native grassland remnants like the Northeast Swale where it is sometimes pollinated by one of the largest and showiest butterflies on the continent, the Tiger Swallowtail.

Author: Trevor Herriot

Trevor Herriot is a naturalist, grassland conservationist, and the author of several award-winning books, including Grass, Sky, Song and the national bestseller River in a Dry Land. He has published essays and articles in The Globe & Mail, Canadian Geographic, and several anthologies. Herriot appears regularly on CBC Radio Saskatchewan’s Birdline and has been featured in several documentaries, including “Grasslands: a Hidden Wilderness,” which appeared on The Nature of Things. He and his wife, Karen, live in Regina and spend much of their time on a piece of Aspen Parkland prairie east of the city.