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The Secret Life of Armenia's Floral Kingdom

15 June, 2016 - 10:44 -- World Land Trust

Feynman flower quote

Latest reports from our partner Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) in Armenia are describing the vibrant floral blooms adorning the meadows of the Caucasus Mountains. This area has around 7,500 species of plants, of which 35 per cent are endemic, so can only be found in the Caucasus although many species may be recognised from gardens. So what is the science behind the flourishing life and colour in this cold, rocky habitat? Here World Land Trust (WLT) describes the functions of the unusual shapes and colours seen in Armenia’s unique floral display.

Onobrychis michauxii

The bright side

The main function of colourful flowers is to attract insects, who receive a sugary nectar snack and a dusting of pollen which pollinates the next flower they visit of the same species. Insect eyes have a different visual spectrum to us and are able to differentiate between colours more clearly than we do, as well as see ultraviolet shades.

Therefore the array of colours in blossoms appear even more diverse to insects, which may use this to recognise their ‘favourite’ flowers. Studies have shown that yellow and white blooms (such as this Onobrychis michauxii) appear to be the most attractive to ‘generalist’ insects1, which may be due to their brightness making them more visible to ultraviolet-sensitive insects.

Grape Hyacinth

Chemistry of colour

The colour of flowers comes from the pigments in the petals. Sometimes the colour is a side effect of the pigment being used for another purpose, such as chlorophyll (which gives leaves their green) for photosynthesis. Red, blue and purple flowers (like this Armenian Grape Hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum, which is a garden favourite in its domesticated form) are high in anthocyanin pigment, which is thought to protect the plant against drought and heat2. The word ‘anthocyanin’ translates from Greek to blue (kyanos) flower (anthos).


Thieves in pink

On the topic of chlorophyll, the photosynthesising pigment which makes plants green, two of Armenia’s most conspicuous flowers lack chlorophyll altogether, with no leaves and red and pink stems3. Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) and Phelypaea tournefortii are both parasites of the broomrape family with roots which penetrate the roots of their host and suck out water and nutrients.

Iris elegantissima

Bed and Breakfast flower

The Bearded Iris (Iris elegantissima) has an unusual shape which creates a cosy pocket of air which is four degrees Celsius warmer than the outside air. As the Caucasus is subject to a sharp, continental climate and cool nights, insects seek refuge inside the warm petals- inadvertently helping to pollinate the flower.


Butterfly platform

Very broadly speaking, bilaterally symmetrical flowers (such as orchids) tend to attract specialist pollinators, and some have evolved specifically for their favoured insect, such as this Corydalis seisumsiana.

The purple opening petals of the flower serve as a landing platform for butterflies, which are the only insects able to reach down the long tube for nectar with their proboscis. Attracting a specialist pollinator reduces inbreeding and increases the chances of successful pollination and fertilisation.

Incidentally, there are 131 butterfly species in the area (58 per cent of total butterfly species in Armenia), among them five species included in European Red List4.

Ophrys oestrifera

Seductive bee costume

Adapting for a specialist pollinator is taken one step further in the bee orchids, such as the Ophrys oestrifera. These flowers practice ‘sexual deception’ by emitting the sex pheromone of virgin female bees, as well as having a furry, bee-like appearance, to attract male bees. These males attempt to copulate with the flower and inadvertently pick up and carry pollen to other bee orchids which also fool the male.

More information

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One of the Keepers of the Wild in Armenia, Manuk Manukyan, said “The vegetation and plants usually do not generate that much interest among the tourists as wildlife does, yet it is always very nice to see at least a couple of tourists admiring plants during the hike in CWR.

“Obviously, with such vegetation diversity, beautiful insects and a wide range of butterfly species inhabit the CWR.”

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1.) Colours and insects: Kevan, Peter G. "Flowers, insects, and pollination ecology in the Canadian High Arctic." Polar Record 16.104 (1973): 667-674.

2.) Flowers and non-insect factors: Strauss, Sharon Y., and Justen B. Whittall. "Non-pollinator agents of selection on floral traits." Ecology and evolution of flowers (2006): 120-138.

3.) Butterflies in Armenia:

4.) Parasite flowers: Fitter, Alastair, and David Attenborough. New generation guide to the wild flowers of Britain and northern Europe. University of Texas Press, 1987.

5.) Identification: Parolly, Gerald, Eleonora Gabrielian, and Ori Fragman-Sapir. "Flowers of the Transcaucasus and Adjacent Areas. Including Armenia, Eastern Turkey, Southern Georgia, Azerbaijan and Northern Iran." (2008): 282-284.


Submitted by drs Huub Schoot on

Do you have somewhere a copy of the book Flowers of the Transcaucasus and adjacent.... and will you sell it to me?

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