Everyone loves the cherry blossoms that bloom every March and April around the Tidal Basin and other parts of the National Mall. The flowering trees draw huge crowds and impossible parking, but the trees are actually trying to entice something else: insects.
“What happens in the spring is these flowers open up to bloom, and flowering cherries are pollinated by insects,” said Margaret Pooler, a botanist at the U.S. National Arboretum. Pollination is basically tree sex facilitated by a third party. In order for plants to make seeds to reproduce, they need pollen to come into contact with a part of the plant called the pistil, both of which are located in flowers. Cherry trees have both pollen and pistils on the same plant, but they need the help of pollinator insects like bees to help the two come together.
Pooler explained that showy flowers entice pollinators with the promise of sweet nectar. When the insects come into contact with the flower, they get some of the pollen on their bodies, which they then carry to other flowers. Once the pollen and pistil have come into contact with each other, the plant can produce a seed, which is located inside a fruit (a cherry, in this case—but not the ones we eat) that will either drop to the ground or get eaten by an animal. The seeds then have a chance to sprout and grow into new trees.
“A lot of other trees—especially the ones that give people allergies—are pollinated by wind,” said Pooler. These plants, like oaks, maple trees and grasses, have heavier pollen and often contribute to people’s hayfever.
So next time you visit the cherry blossoms, be sure to take in their beauty, and remember, it’s all in the name of reproduction.