Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Honeyeaters love the "Honeyflower"

I love the way that some birds intuitively "understand" the plants I grow.

Our Australian Honeyeaters love plants which produce nectar in long tubular flowers. These birds relate to Mexican Salvias as easily as they do to native Australian Waratahs and Grevilleas. And then there is the spectacular "Large Honeyflower" from South Africa.

I love this plant mostly for its intricately patterned leaves. I have mentioned before, that this plant reminds me of my (late) Mother and her beloved dressmaking scissors - her "Pinking Shears". The deeply incised leaves look as if cut in that zig-zag edge pattern of Pinking Shears.

But for the birds, the nectar is the important part of this plant.

This plant is called Melianthus major .
That name translates easily as Melia = Honey; Anthus = flower + major = large. Large Honeyflower. That South African plants site says: "The nectar-rich, bird pollinated flowers rise up above the leaves, drawing attention with their unusual rusty red colouring."
And that, dear reader, is a reminder of the Gondwanan link between our Australian birds and the plants of South Africa, Australia and Mexico. There is a tendency for plants from those three regions to produce long tubular flowers which have copious nectar. Our Australian bird family of Honeyeaters are specialists.

An Eastern Spinebill on an Australian Grevillea.
Here is a close-up of the head of a young Spinebill
which died of concussion when it flew into a friend's window.
Look at the long thin beak.
The scientific name is: Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris
Wikipedia says: "The generic name is derived from the Greek translation of its common name, namely acantho-/ακανθο- "spine" and rhynchos/ρυνχος "bill". Its specific name is from Latin tenuis "narrow" and rostrum billed."
Got that?
"Long thin spine beak" - perfect for getting into long curved flowers.

Here is a Brush Wattlebird feeding on the Melianthus major.
Note the yellow pollen dusted all over its forehead.
Here is the bird sizing up the best flower head to go for.

And here is the Wattlebird perched on the flower stem.
Note the similarity in posture with this image, and that of
the first picture of the Eastern Spinebill.
These Honeyeaters are great acrobats.
This posture, poised underneath a flower stem,
reaching up into a protruding curved flower is a classic pose.
They are even able to feed upside down.
They do that, if necessary,
to get their long tongues inside the flower.


These birds do not care where the flower originated.

They know it carries nectar,
and they are perfectly adapted to harvest it.

Party Time!


mick said...

Beautiful birds and flowers. I often look at plant photos on your blog and think that I would like to grow one of what you have shown in my garden. However, I am sure that if the plant grows well in your climate it would possibly not like the climate up here.
I am intrigued that some flowering plants in my garden do not attract any birds at all! For instance I have two kinds of callistemons in flower at present - a red flowering one and a cream flowered one. The birds love the red one but I have yet to see them on the cream one - except for maybe a Brown Honeyeater and I think it was just using the tree for shelter. The flowers have numbers of bees on them but maybe they are just getting pollen. The red flower has some perfume but the cream one has a very strong perfume. I'm sure a biologist would know!

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Mick
Your observation about some plants attracting birds and some not is well reported. I have heard a theory that the hybrid Grevilleas, for example, look showy, ( tour eyes) but do not always attract birds.
In general red flowers attract birds - they see red very well.
Beyond that, I cannot comment.
Re the Melianthus, it is regarded as an old fashioned plant, and seldom sold in nurseries.
It comes from the
"south-west Cape" area of South Africa.
I do know it grows better here than in Canberra (where I have grown it previously). It seems to like my rich soil, or the extra moisture.
It strikes readily from cuttings.

catmint said...

Hi Denis, this is very interesting. I have a flowering echium in the garden and the wattlebirds are crazy about it. As you say, hybrids may not attract them even if they are the right natives. I support multiculturalism in the garden. But the bright parrots only seem to go for the eucalypt flowers. cheers, catmint

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Catmint
Partly there is a physical adaptation of the shape of flowers and the shape of bird beaks. That's why I talked about long tubular flowers and the honeyeaters.
Lorikeets are nectar specialists. They also have "brush tongues" (to collect nectar with) but they have short rounded beaks, so the open flowers of Eucalypts suit them better.
Its endlessly interesting working out the reasons behind the preferences of some birds for particular flowers.