An acclaimed nature writer reveals the secret life of flowers
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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, andin very large sunflowers144 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.
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