Flowers that resemble butterflies - The masterful mimicry of Viburnum hanceanum

KFBG Diary

Mimicry is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of wildlife adaptation/ecology. Whilst some examples are obvious, others are more obscure.

We often come across stories of remarkable mimicry among creatures such as bugs and moths, which use mimicry to hide their true identity and help them hunt or avoiding being eaten. Whilst many animals have evolved to use mimicry, it also plays a role in some plants. This may explain the striking appearance of some flowers.

The arrival of spring has triggered the flowering of Viburnum hanceanum, which has inconspicuous and unremarkable flowers. At a glance, one would wonder how such tiny pale-yellow flowers manage to attract what seem to be large numbers of encircling butterflies. Only when one goes closer, and examines the flowers more closely, one realises that the white, stationary ‘butterflies’ are not real butterflies but in fact the bracts mimicking butterflies!

There is perhaps an interesting explanation for such an adaptation. It has been suggested that resembling butterflies may help to attract pollinators, such as actual butterflies, as the plant tricks them into believing that there must be an abundant food source available. When the butterflies approach, they flutter around the flowers, and carry off the pollen with them, thereby assisting with pollination.  

Butterfly-like bracts and the tiny yellow flowers.

The white bracts look like butterflies surrounding the yellow flower from afar.

Pollinator - bee

Pollinator – Common Mapwing (Cyrestis thyodamas)