Vegetable Flowers

by Margaret Gratz

When it comes to growing vegetables, the patriarch of the family frequently takes on this garden task, and suddenly, gardening becomes a precise science. The soil pH is carefully analyzed, and like a gleeful Dr. Jekyll, he experiments with fertilizers and soil additives. Weeds and bugs are quickly eradicated, and deer and rabbits that nibble the broccoli do so at their own peril. Vegetables, like good little soldiers, march in straight rows, and the tomatoes are staked and tied with a knot learned in Boy Scouts.

In some families, there is the attitude that only a real man can grow vegetables. Flowers, on the other hand, are left to the fairer, gentler sex. Ah, but then the first golden, squash blossom appears, and the small tomato flowers shyly nod their heads. By the time the okra, with its showy, hibiscus-like flowers blooms, the practical, no-nonsense vegetable gardener has become a veritable poet.

Before there can be vegetables, there must be flowers, and frequently, these vegetable flowers are just as beautiful as the annuals and perennials that adorn our flower beds. And, of course, flowers must be pollinated, or there will be no fruit. The wise, productive gardener will not only appreciate these flowers for their beauty but well understands the role flowers play in the production of vegetables.

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and squash usually have both male and female flowers on the vines. These plants depend on bees, wasps and butterflies for pollination, so pesticide use is discouraged or if used, to do so sparingly. To attract plenty of pollinators to the vegetable garden, it is beneficial to plant annuals, such as zinnias or marigolds along with the vegetables. In some areas where pollinators are scarce, these plants can be hand pollinated, but it is better to let the bees do it.

Tomato flowers have both male and female organs and are pollinated by the wind and bumblebees. Bumblebees "vibrate" the flowers which greatly helps with pollination. Honeybees cannot do this. If there is a dearth of bumblebees in your garden, on your early morning perusal of the vegetable garden, the flowers can be lightly tapped with a pencil to shake a little pollen on the pistils. With tomato plants, the theme song should be "Shake It Up Baby!".

Eggplants and peppers are pollinated much like tomatoes. Here, again, bumblebees are quite efficient and up to the task. Eggplant flowers are a pale lavender and are star shaped. The flowers of peppers are small, white and also star shaped. These flowers are dainty and lovely.

For corn as "high as an elephant's eye," rows of corn must be planted side by side so the wind can do the pollination. The tassels of corn are the male flowers, and the silks are the female flowers. When tassels and silks have both formed, it helps to stroll through the corn patch and gently shake the stalks to aid in pollination. You may sing while you stroll. Every corn patch needs a Pavarotti.

Okra plants produce some of the most dramatic blossoms in the vegetable garden. These flowers are supposedly self pollinated, but every time I have examined an okra blossom, there have been many insects visiting the flower. Surely, these insects must help with pollination.

All legumes, peas and beans, will have sweet-pea-like flowers, and the vines will obligingly climb a trellis, cover arbors or decorate pole tepees. The flowers of these plants are self pollinated.

With the rising popularity of kitchen or "potager" gardens where flowers, herbs and vegetables are all grown together, gardeners are discovering that vegetable flowers can definitely hold their own with fancy flowers. The flowers and herbs attract lots of pollinators, and the result is vegetables worthy of a blue ribbon.

Even in the 21st century, there is still some sexist delineation in the garden, but all would agree that growing your own vegetables is healthy, wholesome, rewarding and economical. But it all begins with the flower.

(Click on any photo to enlarge)

 

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