The gender divide was fairly distinct in my parents’ yard. The beds that ran along the porch, the shady corner beneath the magnolia tree, and the half-circle plot just outside the fence were all devoted to flowers, and were thereby my mom’s realm. The raised beds in the backyard and the fruit trees that grew on the south and north side of the house? These were my dad’s charges.
A few marigolds planted alongside the tomatoes were the only non-productive flowers that graced these food-producing plots. Herbs were religiously pinched to keep them from going to seed, and the tight furls that dotted the heads of broccoli only opened up in a profusion of mustard yellow blooms when we were all away on vacation. Pea, bean, pepper, tomato, strawberry, cucumber, zucchini, cherry, apple and pear flowers all made their appearances, but as a means to an end—the vegetables and fruits that followed the blooms is what he was after.
That you can buy armfuls of cilantro flowers and arugula blossoms at farmers markets now, that pungent flowering herbs and edible flowers like cucumber-sweet borage and peppery nasturtium are vogue ingredients at restaurants, suggest that the divide between floral and food, between female and male realms of the garden or farm have blurred. And while the equality bit is much deserved (women play a key role in agriculture, after all), the space being made for showy flowers in patches of dirt that might otherwise be devoted to more substantial crops has less to do with the reframing of gender norms than it does with pollination—a notion that now has science on its side, according to new research published in Ecology Letters.
See, if a tomato flower opens and there’s no bee or moth or another fluttering insect to pollinate it, you aren’t getting a tomato out of that bloom. And with colony collapse disorder making the apian workhorses of agriculture more and more scarce, why not hedge your bets? If the small yellow dots of tomato flowers are growing next to countless clusters of feathery cilantro blooms, there’s going to be a lot more buzzing in that general vicinity (also, green cilantro seeds—coriander by another name—are delicious).
The small, diverse nature of my dad’s garden assures that there’s almost always something in flowering, which, along with those nearby decorative flowers, should be enough to keep some bees around. But if you have a few thousand acres of, say, almond trees, the boughs dusted with white flowers for just a few short weeks a year, what kind of pollen-based argument does that make to a bee? Why would they want to stick around?
They don’t, which is why huge trailer trucks full of hives are freighted around to about-to-bloom orchards, guaranteeing an adequate supply of pollinators. But the new research supports the going-to-seed approach that’s made cilantro blossoms a common sight at the farmers market. The study, conducted by Alterra Research, shows that promoting biodiversity on farmland by dedicating more space to flowers—wild varieties in particular—has a significant impact on the presence of wild pollinators. Co-author David Klejin sums up the analysis of 71 studies of agri-environment schemes throughout Europe, telling Science Daily, “All you have to do to enhance the wild pollinators of crops on farmland is increase flower abundance in field margins, roadsides or crop edges.”
If the bees don’t come, there’s no revenue at stake in a backyard garden, of course, but there’s nothing more depressing than seeing dropped blossoms scattered below a plant. If pride is analogous to cash in a home garden, then flowers and the bees they attract are just as important in a backyard as they are on a farm.
Still, I’ve been hemming and hawing about planting the matajilla poppy I bought last weekend. The Southern California native, its palm-sized blooms resembling crepe-paper fried eggs, can achieve a towering stature, the stems reaching as high as six or eight feet tall. It thrives with very little water, and the evocative blossoms are one of my favorites among California native plants. But that’s space where I could plant another fruit tree...
I’ll plant it in the end, though, knowing science is on my side, hoping my tomato harvest will be better for it.