T HERE were some plants with gorgeous red blossoms growing at the edge of the brook that flowed out of Holiday Pond. They were too beautiful to disturb. Their straight stems, tipped with deep, rich red, were much lovelier beside the stream where the water reflected their color than they could have been if broken and placed in vases.
The people who lived at Holiday Farm never gathered these blossoms. They always left the cardinal flowers for the humming birds.
While the humming birds were waiting for these plants to blossom, they visited elsewhere. First, each spring, they found the rock columbines, the flowers of which, like groups of red horns lined with gold, held nectar that was good to sip. Before the columbines went to seed, the apple trees blossomed. For a few days the humming birds tasted the food served in dishes of pink and white apple petals.
Many insects came to the same banquet. Some of the smallest of these were doubtless eaten by the humming birds, for nectar was not the only food these birds enjoyed. They needed something besides sweet liquids to give them strength to fly far and fast, to build their nests, and to rear their young. They needed meat as well as drink, and they came to flowers for both nectar and tiny insects.
Bumblebees were often busy in the apple blossoms, and their big, fuzzy bodies seemed to be in the way of the humming birds, so the birds chased them off the tree. It was rather a funny sight to see the tiniest of birds darting after the largest of bees. They followed the black and yellow velvet-coated insects for ten or twelve feet, and then turned and flew swiftly to the fragrant blossoms as if in haste to enjoy the feast while there were no clumsy bumblebees about.
It was not until July that the cardinal flowers were ready. Meanwhile the humming birds spent eight or ten weeks visiting blossoms of various colors and many forms. They liked red best of all, however; and their slender bills were exactly the right shape to poke into flowers that held nectar in long tubes.
Neither in color nor in form were there blossoms more tempting than the cardinal flowers. So one July day, when these plants opened the earliest of their red buds, a humming bird came down to the water's edge.
The lowest buds of the Cardinal Flower are the first to open.
At the time a boy and a girl were sitting on the bank near by. They were comradely cousins who were spending the summer at Holiday Farm; and they had been watching the young sandpipers wandering along the brook.
Suddenly something moved past them very near their heads. They heard several quick squeaks, fine squeaks, high-pitched and thin. At the same time there was a sound of tiny whirring wings. Then they saw a humming bird hovering before a cardinal flower. His back was glistening green. Underneath he was white and gray. The feathers of his throat were wonderful reds, seeming to change in the sunshine from ruby to scarlet or flaming orange. They gleamed like crimson jewels in the light.
The children on the bank looked at the ruby-throated humming bird among the cardinal flowers and at the colors reflected in the water below, and they thought that nothing else in the world could be so lovely.
After taking a sip from each open flower, the humming bird flew to a slender twig on a neighboring tree. There he rested for about ten minutes, preening his feathers and looking about. Then he made the rounds of the cardinal flowers again; and after taking a second rest on the same slender twig as before, he darted away to other flowery hunting grounds.
Each of the tall cardinal-flower plants had from ten to twenty red buds. These covered several inches of the upper part of the stem. The lowest buds were the first to open. Then those above blossomed. Last of all to flower were those at the very tip.
The most important parts of one of these flowers were the pistil and the stamens. The lower part of the pistil was a sort of seed pod, and attached to this was a slender part with a sticky tip, called a stigma. The stamens were joined in such a way as to make a tube, and some dusty pollen grew on their tips. As the pistil grew longer, it pressed against the stamens and pushed the pollen out before its stigma became sticky enough to catch any of the pollen.
Now, unless some of the pollen grains fell on the sticky part of the pistil and from there found their way to the seeds, the seeds could never grow into plants. It takes pollen to make really live seeds. So if each cardinal flower lost its pollen before the pistil was ready for it, how could it ever have any seeds?
Indeed, there was only one way. Since each cardinal flower lost its own pollen, it must have pollen from another cardinal flower or else its seeds would perish.
Perhaps by now you have guessed what the humming birds did when they thrust their bills into the tube-shaped cardinal flowers for food? They brushed against loose pollen in newly opened blossoms, and carried it to the older blossoms with sticky stigmas. In this way they saved the lives of the seeds.
The humming birds, of course, did not know anything about the cardinal-flower seeds. But the feathers at the base of their bills grew in just the right place to catch the dusty pollen in one flower and to hit against the ready stigma in another.
The cousins from Holiday Farm came often to the border of the stream and the pond where the cardinal flowers grew, and if they waited quietly they were sure to see a humming bird. Often it would be a father humming bird with a ruby throat. Sometimes it would be a mother humming bird with a grayish white throat and a white tip on her tail. And before the topmost buds on the stalks opened, the young birds came down with whirring wings and squeaky voices.
Usually, though not always, only one bird came at a time. He had a thorough way of going into every open flower on a stalk and then choosing another stalk near by. He seldom skipped a flower unless something disturbed him. If he saw another humming bird coming too near, he would chase it away with a squeak of displeasure. He liked to be quite alone at mealtime.
Before the latest of the cardinal flowers lost their bright petals, the humming birds went on their long journey to Central America. There they found enough nectar in red, tube-shaped flowers and enough small, delicate insects to satisfy them until the next spring when the columbine was ready for them again in the north.
The cardinal flowers had their seeds to ripen before it was time for frost. The plants that were farthest away from the brook scattered their seeds in the mud, where they had a very good chance to grow. The plants that were in the stream began to drop their seeds into the water. Such seeds floated away. Some of them were washed ashore, where they sprouted and found root hold. But some of them drifted over Six-foot Falls and floated off to sea.
The cousins from Holiday Farm saw what was happening. They did not like to lose the seeds. They wished the humming birds to have a good garden another year. So they waded into the brook and picked all the seeds that had not floated away. These they planted in wet ground near the pond.
At last cold weather came. The tall stalks that had borne dark green, willow-shaped leaves and red flowers, were frozen. They became stiff and dry. Wind and snow broke the stems, which were no longer of use.
Near the roots of the old plants, however, were some shorter stems underground that did not become dry. They waited until the winter snows had melted. They waited until the high spring water had flowed over them and away. They waited until the summer sun was warm. Then they grew straight and tall, putting forth their long leaves, which were shaped much like those of willow trees.
When it was July again, their tips were gorgeous with blossoms. Near them were the younger plants that had been seeds the year before.
Before the earliest of the blossoms had been ready many hours, the humming birds visited them. It seemed as if the pollen-carriers had been waiting for the red buds to open.