Have you ever caught a whiff of jasmine from afar and become so enchanted by the sweet aroma that you went out of your way to get a stronger sniff, perhaps a flower to take with? That is the tiny jasmine’s grand invitation… and you accepted. But this sort of invitation is not merely one of vanity nor an insecurity that demands reassurance. No, flowers have an agenda of their own and they deserve far more recognition than we give them. You see, two hundred million years ago there were no flowers; the world was populated mostly by cold-blooded reptiles. The emergence of flowering plants changed everything.
When they first appeared on Earth during the Cretaceous period, angiosperms, as botanists call flowering plants, relied on wind and water to spread around their seeds. But over millions of years of evolution they discovered that the most effective way to reproduce was to persuade animals to transport their seeds. In order to do this, flowers learned to play with animals’ desires by developing precise modes of sensory stimuli directed to attract specific pollinators. Those who managed to be more successful were the ones who could multiply and flourish.
For millennia, flowers have been perfecting the art of seduction. They provoke the eye with their extraordinary aesthetics. They amuse the nose with alluring aromas; and if you allow yourself to touch, the flower becomes itself a miniature landscape of textures that vary as much as their colors. Moreover, numerous flowering plants allow us the privilege of their taste and nourishment – while other more mischievous ones produce substances that can heal or poison. Flowers have learned to amuse all of the senses: this is their secret language.
In exchange for transport, flowering plants produce nectars, pollen and fruits that animals can use for sustenance. Nectar and fruits are more than just sugar; they contain amino acids, minerals and vitamins in combinations that satisfy the pollinators’ nutritional needs. Pollen is also not just microscopic seeds, it is one of the main sources of protein for many bees and beetles. For millions of centuries now, flowers and their pollinators have evolved together into a symbiosis that makes them indispensable for one another.
Every flower tells a story. The vast diversity of color, form and scent we find in flowers is a direct result of the intimate relationships they have with their pollinators. You can look at a flower and deduce all sorts of interesting things about the tastes and the desires of bees; that they like sweetness and symmetry, for example, contrary to beetles, who prefer stronger, mustier odors and require wide open petals to land on.
If you dig deeper, you’ll also uncover that some of these adaptations are not as obvious to human sensibilities. For instance, some flowers that rely on bees to pollinate them have areas of ultraviolet reflection, invisible to the human eye, that help guide the bee towards the pollen. Other flower species go as far as to impersonate their pollinators in order to attract them. An example of this is the copper beard orchid, which imitates the shape and scent of the female scoliid wasp. While attempting to mate with the flower, the male wasp provides the pollination service that enables this cleverly beautiful flower to reproduce.
What is more is that flowers don’t only depend on and benefit insects, birds and smaller mammals. Humans also have an intrinsic connection to flowers. Following the Cretaceous period, the Paleocene marked the first period of the Cenozoic era, also known as the age of mammals and flowering plants. It turns out that the relation between flowers and their pollinators resulted in the rapid proliferation of the world’s food supply, making it possible for warm-blooded mammals to thrive. This means that if it were not for flowers, we would not be here.
Flowers have shaped us as much as we have shaped them. Understanding how they have evolved to communicate with their environment, to have such a remarkable effect upon it, suddenly brings the realization that us humans and our consciousness do not have ultimate power over nature. Recognizing the power of flowers allows us to find meaning in them that is not only of our human making. To us humans, a red rose symbolizes love, but to the butterfly that pollinates them, a red rose represents a home and a fountain of ailment. The meaning of flowers lies with whoever perceives them.
Flowers are proof that even the most seemingly innocent creatures are powerful actors with the ability to affect and manipulate the environment around them. The history of flowers is a testament to the idea that consciousness, which we consider the ultimate accomplishment of nature, is just another set of tools for getting around in the world. For millennia humans have learned to manipulate nature with fire, metal, stone, and reason. Meanwhile flowers have lived among us – quitely perfecting the language of seduction through biochemical processes far beyond our imagination. We are equally as sophisticated, just in different ways.
By Ana Lucia Ralda