The delightful work of flowers
“It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want — oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!
— Mark Twain (1835-1910)
I am definitely afflicted with spring fever, caused by our recent warm, sunny days and the valley bursting to life with blossoms in an intoxicating range of colors and scents. I know what I want — to walk around my neighborhood every day, drinking in the loveliness of my favorite time of year.
The flowers I derive such pleasure from are actually a plant’s workhorses. Flowering plants, or angiosperms, evolved more than 100 million years ago to attract pollinators. Over the millennia, different plant species developed colors, fragrances and shapes to entice specific pollinators to join them in a symbiotic tango that provides a meal to one partner and offspring to the other. As examples, night-flying moths prefer white flowers, dung beetles love the manure smell of Hydnora africana, and bees are attracted to orchids because its lower lip provides a perfect place for landing.
It wasn't until the last century that scientists learned what causes plants to flower. Until then, people were reluctant to even consider that plants reproduced sexually. Indeed, when Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed our modern-day system of classifying plants based on their reproductive organs, critics fumed that his theories were offensive to public decency. In 1910, scientists found that many plants begin flowering in response to changes in the lengths of day and night, a phenomenon called photoperiodism. For instance, carnations are summer blooming, long-day plants, whereas chrysanthemums bloom in the fall when nights become longer and days shorter.
More recently, it was discovered that one plant gene, named Apetala1, initiates flowering. Information about the photoperiod and other growing conditions is transmitted to the Apetala1 gene, which triggers other DNA to switch on a “stop light” to the plant’s meristems where growth occurs. The meristems respond to the signal by redirecting growth to flower production.
In "The Botany of Desire," Michael Pollan writes about sensory adaptations that assist flowering plants in their continuous quest for regeneration. In this case the pollinators are people, lured to particular plants by a desire for sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control. In our attempts to gratify these longings, we create new cultivars and sow more plants, thus fulfilling the plants’ wishes as well as our own.
One example of a reciprocal relationship between humans and plants is Lilium candidum, the Madonna lily, so named because early Christians associated its pure white petals with the Virgin Mary. Apparently, humans also long for purity and innocence, because many cultivars of the lily have been developed to enhance its pristine white flowers and minimize its rather suggestive pistil. One cultivar is Lilium longiflorum, the Easter lily, grown so extensively in Curry County that this region is known as the Easter lily capital of the world.
Mark Twain jokingly told a reporter in 1906 that his customary all-white attire “betokens purity and innocence.” He might have tucked a lily in his lapel to cap off the image. I’m sure if he had, the lily would have been pleased.
Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.