Say it with Flowers
– Memoir & Essay by Angela Douglas –
– Conversation With Isha Liu –
Flowers are great influencers. Flowers are all about being attractive to the eye and often smelling good too; and lives and livelihoods depend on getting it right. Until very recently, humans were not involved but, now that people are in on the act, they are busily shaping and being shaped by flowers. These people include the authors, Isha and Angela, whose personal stories of flower power are provided in the accompanying audios. In this brief article, we retell the wider story of flowers, a tale of influences that started when the world was innocent of human beings.
About 170 million years ago at the height of the Age of Dinosaurs, something strange was happening in the green and pleasant land. The reason for all the buzz was a new kind of plant whose reproductive parts were decorated with modified leaves. It was the time of the first experiments in petals, and the first flowers. The fossil record tells us that flowers started off big, a bit like a water lily or magnolia. The petals of the first flowers are usually portrayed as brilliant white, but that is no more than an educated guess.
The appearance of flowers had an enormous effect on some of the insects that had previously made a living by eating the reproductive tissues, especially the abundant male spores, of flowerless plants. Many of these flowerless plants didn’t just tolerate these insects; they invited the tiny diners in and used them as a delivery service. Some of the many spores on which the insects were feeding would stick to the insect body and, when the insect visited another plant, the spores would fall off onto the female reproductive organ. In other words, the relationship between plants and insect pollinators is much more ancient than flowering plants.
Nevertheless, flowers changed the pollination game. Exploiting the keen vision of insects, the first flowering plants used the bright color of their petals to advertise the precise location of their protein-rich pollen granules, which contain the male gametes. Before long, many flowering plants added in tempting scents and, best of all, sugary nectar to attract the insects. Keep each nectar snack small, and the insects work all day to get tiny mouthfuls of sugar from one flower after another, inadvertently transporting pollen between the flowers. Various plants changed the paradigm to attract birds (bright red flowers, readily visible to birds but beyond the visual range of insects) or bats (large, pale flowers that bloom at night). And so our world is filled with an amazing diversity of flowers – and an equally amazing diversity of insects and other animals that earn their daily bread by consorting with flowers.
Then humans happened. The early history of humans is still incompletely understood, but two things are certain: humans have been on this planet for a blink of the eye, compared to the long history of flowers and their pollinators; and humans love flowers. Experimental psychologists have shown that the sight and the scent of flowers make people happy, people smile and are more content in the presence of flowers, and flowers can even improve our memory and capacity to reason. Ethnobotanists and archaeologists have shown that the pleasure of flowers is a constant across many cultures and over the millennia. Flower appreciation is hard-wired into our brains, and not a social construct.
The influence of flowers on our emotional state explains some of the ways that we interact with flowers. Humans invest inordinate resources into constructing and maintaining ornamental gardens. Some gardens are famous, such as the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon built by the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife (2600 B.C.E), the formal gardens of Versailles constructed for King Louis XIV of France (1661) and Frederick Olmstead’s naturalistic landscapes of Central Park of New York City (1858); but most flower gardens are small-scale and amateur, constructed in backyards. Humans also value floristry, the art of creating beautiful arrangements of cut flowers. Posies, bouquets and floral arrangements in vases have been popular from the days of ancient Egypt (2,5000 B.C.E) to today. In some cultures, cut flowers are strung together to create elegant designs, as in the Hawaiian lei of plumeria or orchid flowers, and the garlands of roses, violets and lilies decorating the walls of houses in ancient Rome.
Humans do not only use flowers to promote their individual sense of wellbeing. They also use flowers to communicate with other people. Flowers convey joy at a wedding, romantic love on Valentine’s Day, sympathy at a funeral, apologies for something badly done, and so on. A gift of flowers can say that “my heart goes out to you in your troubles”, or “I love you”, or “I am so sorry, please forgive me”.
The outsized influence of flowers on our lives comes, in large part, from our influence on flowers. By selective breeding, we have created flowers that pack a bigger punch on our emotions: flowers that are larger, more colorful, more complex, more scented. For millennia, we have been busy transforming flowers that were designed to attract (and manipulate) pollinators into flowers that are emotionally pleasing to humans. For example, today’s myriad varieties of ornamental roses are founded on a complex history of cultivation and crossbreeding between multiple wild rose species over 2,000 years in West Asia and Europe, and for 5,000 years in China. In the New World, ornamental dahlias and marigolds, including double-flowered varieties (i.e. with multiple layers of petals), were developed by the Aztecs of Mexico over the two centuries before the Spanish conquest of 1521.
A further factor influencing the relationship between humans and flowers is the human fascination with novelty. ‘Different’ is exciting and emotionally-rewarding, and flowers from different parts of the world are perceived as particularly exotic. Wild tulips from the mountains of Kazakhstan were introduced to the west in the 16th century, and they were highly prized. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire wore a tulip in his turban (the word tulip is derived from the Persian ‘tulipan’ word for turban), and tulips were briefly afforded extraordinary monetary values in the 1634-7 tulip mania of the Dutch Republic. The demand for novel flowers is also illustrated by the brilliant yellow blooms of the goldenrods of North America. Just 25 years after the Mayflower transported the Pilgrim Fathers from England to North America (in 1620), goldenrod seeds were transported in the reverse direction to be sold to English gardeners; and various ornamental varieties of goldenrod are grown widely in the UK and other European countries to this day. The trade in flowering plants in recent centuries has been so extensive that every gardening book and online resource is a cosmopolitan collage of modified plant life – as are most backyards. The plants growing in Angela’s backyard include lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) from Turkey and Iran and Sedum spectabile from Korea; and Isha’s backyard has grape hyacinth from the Mediterranean basin, and irises originating from Japan. We have all become so familiar with garden plants that we need to remind ourselves that our backyards are a haven for the exotic.
Our relationship with flowers is – and always has been – at the mercy of fashion. The enthusiasm for black roses in Victorian England has, thankfully, run its course; and the brief craze for petal-less azalea flowers in Japan is done. Recent years have witnessed a strong interest in cultivating native plants and wildflower floristry, offering the promise of a sliver of the natural world and an escape from our tech-driven, urban lives. Websites and books advise on suitable weeds of the wayside, woodland and meadow that can be combined to create casual vase arrangements or DIY bouquets for every occasion. The task can be simplified by purchasing nursery-propagated wildflowers or, even more easily, by ordering ready-made arrangements from a wildflower florist. Customers may, temporarily, feel a little happier and closer to nature, but the impact on the wildflower species is much more profound. Inevitably, the rapidly expanding wildflower industry favors such traits as persistent blooms, and consistent flower color and size, to standardize its products and enhance the appeal to customers. The wildflower industry is more than a contradiction of terms; it is promoting genetic changes in the plants that make the flowers less wild, more domesticated. Flowers are great influencers, but our influence on the flowers we love is even greater.
Information about the floral designs of Isha Liu is available here. Email inquiries are also welcomed. Contact Isha at: email@example.com.
The audio of Angela Douglas includes material excerpted from Nature on the Doorstep: A Year of Letters, by Angela E. Douglas, a Comstock book published by Cornell University Press, forthcoming in Spring 2023. Used by permission of the publisher. The photographs were taken by Jeremy Searle.
Isha Liu is a floral designer who adopts modern and wildflower-garden styles of flower arrangements for bouquets, centerpieces and other floral arrangements. She is skilled in various styles, including the Dutch masterpiece naturalist style, the Ikebana style, grand scale flower arrangements, and foam-free techniques. Isha has received formal training from the New York Botanical Garden and she has gained hands-on experience creating custom-made bouquets for local stores and Farmers’ Market. Isha’s fascination for flowers and floral artistry builds on her MS in Ecology at North Carolina State University and is a world away from her BS in Chemistry at the National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan.
Angela Douglas is a recovering academic and aspiring writer, currently engaged in natural history writing and fiction. Her first book of natural history essays Nature on the Doorstep will be published by Cornell University Press in spring 2023. Angela enjoyed her career as an academic biologist studying beneficial microbes in animals, also known as microbiomes. Her early work focused on plant-animals, including corals and flatworms; these animals that acquire photosynthetic algae which provide them with sugars and other nutrients. Subsequently, she extended her interests to the bacteria that contribute to the nutrition of various insects, including aphids and other sap feeding insects, as well as Drosophila fruit flies. Alongside her research and teaching, Angela has written scientific books, including Fundamentals of Microbiome Science (2018) and Insects and their Beneficial Microbes (2022) published by Princeton University Press, and Microbiomes (2022, Oxford University Press).