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Anatomy Of A Rose: Exploring The Secret Life Of Flowers

Anatomy Of A Rose: Exploring The Secret Life Of Flowers

by Sharman Apt Russell

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In Anatomy of a Rose, Sharman Apt Russell eloquently unveils the "inner life" of flowers. Form their Diverse fragrances to their nasty deceptions, Russell proves that, where nature is concerned, "wonder is not only our starting point, it can also be out destination." Throughout this botanical journey, she reveals that the science behind these intelligent plants


In Anatomy of a Rose, Sharman Apt Russell eloquently unveils the "inner life" of flowers. Form their Diverse fragrances to their nasty deceptions, Russell proves that, where nature is concerned, "wonder is not only our starting point, it can also be out destination." Throughout this botanical journey, she reveals that the science behind these intelligent plants—how they evolved, how they survive, how they heal—is even more awe-inspiring than their fleeting beauty. Russell helps us imagine what a field of snapdragons looks like to a honeybee, and she introduces us to flowers that regulate their own temperature, attract pollinating bats, even smell like a rotting corpse. She also delves into cutting-edge research on everything from flower senses to their healing power. Long used to ease everything form depression to childbirth, flowers are new our main line of defense against childhood leukemia and the deadly Ebola virus. In this poetic rumination, which combines graceful writing with a scientist's clarity, Russell brings together the work of botanists around the globe, and illuminates a world at once familiar and exotic.

About the Author:
Sharman Apt Russell is the author of When the Land Was Young, Kill the Cowboy, and Songs of the Fluteplayer, winner of the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has also been featured in American Nature Writers, Writing Nature, and other anthologies. She teaches writing at Western New Mexico University.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Sharman Apt Russell's charming botanical book blends whimsical nature writing with the latest scientific research. As she aptly describes, flowers have their own agenda, which they aggressively pursue irrespective of the interest humans take in them, and much of this has been hidden from humans until recently. That the sensuality of flowers has been co-opted by us for use as a token of love is no fluke. A flower's reason for being is sex -- the reproduction of the plant. Though some plants use the wind or other mechanical means to transport their sperm to (ideally) others of their kind, the colors, shapes, and scents of many flowers are meant to entice other species, the pollinators. Certain pollinators, such as bees, have a different visual range from humans, seeing beyond the spectrum of (human) visible light into the ultraviolet. Where we see a yellow flower, the bee might see three different colors. Thus we are missing a whole range of patterns and signals that draw bees and other pollinators. Plants, we now discover, are also more active than previously thought. Some plants send out chemical signals when they are being consumed by unwelcome pests; these signals alert nearby plants to step up the production of defense compounds and sometimes even to call for help. Going by the adage "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," these plants have struck a deal with species that prey on plant-eating pests. But Russell reminds us, the knowledge of all these goings-on does not dispel the wonder invoked by a stately bloom or field of delicate blossoms. (Laura Wood, Science & Nature Editor)
A foray into a world of flowers not often seen.
Dallas Morning News
[Russell is] a writer with a gift for compression and clarification...funny,smart,and full of interesting facts.
New Scientist
You are in for a treat.
Albuquerque Journal
[Russell] shows in this book that flowers are individual an d more enterprising than most people have ever imagined.
Baton Rouge Advocate
Like [Diane] Ackerman,[Russell] blends empirical knowledge with touches of rhapsody.
Boston Herald
Russell contemplates the beauty and function of flowers...with the allure of a poet and the clarity of a scientist.
Toronto Globe & Mail
Russell shares her botanical wisdom with a passion...[a] charming little book...her take on flowers and insects is fascinating.
New Mexico Magazine
A beautiful book for those who love a glimpse into the complexities of the naturall world—or just those who,like the author,love flowers.
Science News
Lyrical prose...this slender volume reveals many dynamic qualities of flowers and their role in the chain of life.
Ketzel Levine
[A] little gem of a book.
Science Books and Films
This is not an ordinary book on the life of flowers..a collection of absorbingly informative,well-researched,and thought-provoking essays.
America West Airlines
An eloquent examination of the role blooming plants play in our lives.
Delta Sky
Russell shows,often unnervingly,that far from being simply ornamental,flowers are as industrious and cunning as anyone.
Science and Spirit
Readable and motivating.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This deceptively slim book by acclaimed nature writer Russell (When the Land Was Young; Kill the Cowboy; etc.) is nothing less than an anatomy of beauty. A luminous blend of memoir, botany lesson and history of science, this volume investigates the complex mechanics behind the flower's sensory appeal, which, as Russell shows, is its essential tool for survival. Shapes, colors and smells are invitations to pollinators; the daisy is a "ring of light to attract the bee"; the yellow streak on an iris is a landing strip; the henna flower's scent is a sexy come-hither. On the other hand, flowers pollinated by flies and certain beetles can smell like dead animals, rotting fish or dung. Through evolution, flowers change their attributes in response to predators and environment and, in some cases, in order to outwit or deceive their insect guests. Many flowers exaggerate their virtues, Russell writes, displaying bushy hairs or bright colors on their stamens so that they look richer in pollen than they really are, and some, like the water lily, which lures hoverflies to their deaths, are downright aggressive, a sampling of how mutualism among flowers and insects can be competitive as well as cooperative. Russell discusses the intelligence of flowers, how they position themselves to catch the sun, choose when to release their pollen for maximum impact and how they communicate with, and sometimes prey upon, one another. The author gives a brief history of taxonomy, the naming and classification of flowers, and its development over the last century as theories in biology have changed. She also touches on the healing properties of flowers; their prehistory beginning in the age of the dinosaurs; the mass extinction that destroyed their reign but which proved to be a boon to flowering plants and mammals; and the latest mass extinction which the author says is just now gaining momentum. A rich and satisfying read, Russell's book is like a guided walking tour in a field of wildflowers on a splendid summer day. (Apr. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
On every page of this multifaceted, beautifully written book about flowering plants (no, not just roses) is something to make you smile and something to make you think. Nature writer Sharman Apt Russell explores such mysteries and wonders as the power of communication between plants, the promise held out by plant-derived drugs, and the capacity of various flowers to send communiqués to their pollinators. (In her chapter "Travelin' Man," Russell reflects with characteristic humor on how "pollen has a job to do, going down that long, lonesome highway...") A dozen graceful drawings by Liddy Hubbell complement the text, making it possible, for example, not only to read Russell's fascinating description of the cereus cactus, which blossoms only briefly once a year at night, but also to see what the blazing, short-lived bloom looks like. The inclusion of an extensive index and bibliography help make this information-packed book a valuable resource for science teachers, especially those planning units on botany, genetics and evolution, ecology, bioengineering, and the history of science. With its clear, vibrant, often whimsical prose, Anatomy of a Rose is also an English teacher's dream—a model of well-written memoir. And with its stunning range of topics (early Greek fascination with flowery perfumes, the intriguing number patterns found in nature known as Fibonacci numbers, the relationship between colors and emotion) it offers many interdisciplinary tie-ins between science and other classes such as world studies, math and health. Much as Rachel Carson did in decades past, Russell sounds the environmental alarm—from a new slant: she argues that protecting flowering plants is essential to ourown survival and offers rich evidence for her thesis. Some of her support is predictable—such as her explanation of the conversion of usable energy by chlorophyll—but much is probably not. Who knew that sunflowers have been used at Chernobyl for decontamination, for instance—or that the bitter kola nut may combat the ravages of the Ebola virus? This is a treasure that will be appreciated especially by readers who enjoy the meditative science writing of Lewis Thomas, Annie Dillard, Stephen Gould, and Loren Eisley. Category: Nature & Ecology. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Perseus, 215p. bibliog. index., , Potomac, M
Readers interested in the botany of flowers will enjoy Anatomy Of A Rose, a fine study, which examines how the plants evolved, survive, and how they interact with their environments. Roses aren't the only plants to be studied in this thoughtful presentation: all manner of flowers are considered in a lively tone blending science, scholarship and descriptive phrases.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.02(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Physics
of Beauty

My grandmother in Kansas had a large garden, which she used to provide flowers for my father's grave. We would cut bouquets of snapdragons, zinnias, and cosmos and put them in a coffee can set in the ground near the headstone. My father died when he was thirty-two years old. Where I live in Silver City, New Mexico, parents decorate the graves of children with holiday ornaments: Easter eggs, Christmas trees, a plastic wreath, a Valentine heart. Some parents do this for years and years after a child has died.

    My grandmother put flowers on graves until she died, at the age of ninety-one: great glowing marigolds for her youngest boy, Milburn Grant Apt, weighty white chrysanthemums for her husband, Oley Samuel Apt.

    Why do we give flowers to the dead? Why do we give flowers to the grieving, the sick, the people we love?

    Fifty thousand years ago, the Neanderthals, too, buried their relatives with hyacinth and knapweed.

    What are we offering?

    Flowers are not symbols of power. Flowers are too brief, too frail, to elicit much hope of eternity. In truth, flowers are far removed from the human condition and from all human hope.

    For a moment, in that moment, flowers are simply beautiful.

In her essay "Teaching a Stone to Talk," the writer Annie Dillard complained, "Nature's silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block. The Chinese say that we livein the world of ten thousand things. Each of the ten thousand things cries out to us precisely nothing."

    Annie Dillard believes we silenced the world when we agreed that the world wasn't sacred. Most of us recognize this loss. The trees aren't speaking to us anymore.

    My own experience has been somewhat different. Nature has never been silent for me. Nature whispers in my ear all the time, and it is the same thing over and over. It is not "Love." It is not "Worship." It is not "Psst! Dig here!"

    Nature whispers, and sometimes shouts, "Beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty."

    I am walking up a steep slope in the Sonoran Desert through sweeps of wildflowers. Someone is talking to me about pollination biology. I cannot listen as we walk uphill, because I am being knocked out by the flowers. I am breathing hard because of these flowers. I am an overexcited puppy. My tail knocks over the furniture.

    This is classic arboreal desert: massive saguaro, numinous cholla, virile barrel cactus. Each of these sits apart from the other plants, showing off, in perfect composition. Red penstemon, yellow daisies, orange poppies, purple flax explode in the gravel, rippling like banners up hills and down arroyos. Their colors are the visible metaphor of joy. Flowers are celebratory. I have been invited to a party.

    I feel a painful nostalgia. I used to live here, in this homeland, in this desert, in these hills, among the flowers. If I lived here still, I would be happy. I think to myself, "What went wrong?"

    When Nature whispers beauty, I do not always respond well. Feverishly I want to get inside. I bang at the glass. It is so beautiful. It is too beautiful.

    Only rarely do I feel calm, equal to the occasion. Then I am, myself, transparent.

I stop in a neighbor's yard to admire a sunflower. Its petals form a mandala, a wholeness made of many parts, just as the sunflower is made of many small flowers. In the center, each tiny "disk flower" has fused anthers that produce pollen, a female stigma that receives pollen, and a female ovary containing the ovule that will become a seed. If all goes right, each disk flower will pass on its pollen to a bee or other insect. Pollen is a food wonderfully nutritious and invariably messy. No matter how hard the creature tries, pollen grains stick to its legs, thorax, head, back, or under the wings. Eventually, some grains containing the male sex cells will dislodge on the female stigma of another disk flower. In a perfect world, each disk flower will be fertilized with pollen brought to it from another disk flower. Each ovule will form a sunflower seed.

    Meanwhile, along the center's edge, the "ray flowers" unfurl one by one a single petal that with other ray flowers forms the larger circle. This is the ring of light that attracts the bee. A sunflower, like a daisy or dandelion, is really an inflorescence, a group of individual flowers acting together as a community.

    These petals are an uncompromising yellow-orange. The color seems to contain all the energy this planet will ever need. This color could power a nuclear reactor. It rings like a carillon. It hits me, with a little punch, in the solar plexus.

    The smell of the sunflower is more subtle. Bending closer, I breathe in earth and leaves and a delicate tang. There are odor molecules I recognize but cannot easily name: terpene, camphene, limonene. There are odor molecules I do not recognize and can barely smell. There are odor molecules I will never know because I cannot smell them.

    I know that the sunflower is beautiful. I know this chemically. I know beauty, even though I do not know what to do with my knowledge. I do not know what to do with my feelings.

    The conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote:

The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the Dark Ages. Not even the manipulators of bent space have tried to solve its equations. Everyone knows that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

    Subtract flowers from the world and the whole world is dead from a human point of view. The nonflowering plants on earth include the mosses, liverworts, conifers, cycads, ferns, and gingko trees. Almost every other plant, everything we and other animals eat, requires a flower for reproduction.

    We know that flowers are beautiful. We forget that they are also essential.

We are beginning to explore the physics of beauty. Philosophers and scientists have come together to name certain universal themes.

The universe tends toward complexity.
The universe is a web of relationship.
The universe tends toward symmetry.
The universe is rhythmic.
The universe tends toward self-organizing systems.
The universe depends on feedback and response.
Thus, the universe is "free" and unpredictable

    The themes of the universe may be the elements of beauty. Certainly, they are the elements of flowers.

Flowering plants have radiated around the world to become our most diverse and complex form of vegetation. Flowers dominate every landscape except coniferous forests and lichen-based tundra. They astound us with their variation. We crush the tiniest ones under our feet and hardly notice the spiky blossoms of grass. Instead, we admire the giant arum (Amorphophallus titanum) that grows three feet across, its lip four feet from the ground, its central spire nine feet tall.

    Early explorers thought the arum was pollinated by elephants who came to drink water collected at its base. Absently, the great creatures rubbed their heads against the pillar of pollen.

    Elephant pollination is botanical kitsch. But flowers are pollinated by all kinds of animals, by marsupial mice and miniature thrips, by birds and lizards and butterflies and gnats and cockroaches and squirrels. A flower in Africa is pollinated by giraffes. The giant arum is pollinated by carrion beetles.

    Like the arum, most flowers are one half of a partnership. They depend on a species extraordinarily different from themselves, someone who will carry their male sperm to another flower and bring compatible sperm to the egg in their ovary.

    Some flowers depend on the wind. Flight is their means to reproduction. Is the Greek story of the North Wind, who could fertilize mares, any stranger? Are tales of Spider Woman or Moses parting the Red Sea any stranger?

    The physics of beauty requires math. The sunflower has spirals of 21, 34, 55, 89, and—in very large sunflowers—144 seeds. Each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. This pattern seems to be everywhere: in pine needles and mollusk shells, in parrot beaks and spiral galaxies. After the fourteenth number, every number divided by the next highest number results in a sum that is the length-to-width ratio of what we call the golden mean, the basis for the Egyptian pyramids and the Greek Parthenon, for much of our art and even our music. In our own spiral-shaped inner ear's cochlea, musical notes vibrate at a similar ratio.

    The patterns of beauty repeat themselves, over and over.

    Yet the physics of beauty is enhanced by a self, a unique, self-organizing system. Scientists now know that a single flower is more responsive, more individual, than they had ever dreamed. Plants react to the world. Plants have ways of seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.

    Rooted in soil, a flower is always on the move. Sunflowers are famous for turning toward the sun, east in the morning, west in the afternoon. Light-sensitive cells in the stem "see" sunlight, and the stem's growth orients the flower. Certain cells in a plant see the red end of the spectrum. Other cells see blue and green. Plants even see wavelengths we cannot see, such as ultraviolet.

    Most plants respond to touch. The Venus's-flytrap snaps shut. Stroking the tendril of a climbing pea will cause it to coil. Brushed by the wind, a seedling will thicken and shorten its growth. Touching a plant in various ways, at various times, can cause it to close its leaf pores, delay flower production, increase metabolism, or produce more chlorophyll.

    Plants are touchy-feely.

    They taste the world around them. Sunflowers use their roots to "taste" the surrounding soil as they search for nutrients. The roots of a sunflower can reach down eight feet, nibbling, evaluating, growing toward the best sources of food. The leaves of some plants can taste a caterpillar's saliva. They "sniff" the compounds sent out by nearby damaged plants. Research suggests that some seeds taste or smell smoke, which triggers germination.

    The right sound wave may also trigger germination. Sunflowers, like pea plants, seem to increase their growth when they hear sounds similar to but louder than the human speaking voice.

    In other ways, flowers and pollinators find each other through sound. A tropical vine, pollinated by bats, uses a concave petal to reflect the bat's sonar signal. The bat calls to the flower. The flower responds.

The more we learn about flowers, the less silent they are. Perhaps all this listening is a way for the trees to speak to us again.

    I can still smell my grandmother's garden.

    We are just beginning to understand what we have always loved.

Meet the Author

Sharman Apt Russell is the author of several books, including Hunger and Songs of the Fluteplayer, which won the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award. She has written for publications including Discover and Nature Conservancy, and currently contributes to OnEarth, the magazine for the National Resource Defense Council. Russell teaches creative writing at Western New Mexico University and at Antioch University in Los Angeles, California. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico.

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