Those amazing and confusing Spring flowers

Flowers are of course some of the most beautiful objects within Nature's realm and they can be considered at a number of emotional and intellectual levels. If one thinks simply of the amazing variations in color and form, flowers can be perceived purely in terms of these aspects without any thought given to how or why they may look like this. There is nothing wrong with this "child-like" appreciation of flowers or nature in general, although it usually leads to a gradual accumulation of knowledge about natural patterns that are observed, and thus a more intellectual approach that involves some directed study. You might argue that asking questions about flowers might diminish their wonder, but I think it is actually the opposite. The more one learns about natural objects, the more fascinating and remarkable they become.

For example in walking around our farm in this glorious Spring-time I am struck by the diversity in form and color of flowers and what this might mean to their function. To take just three examples which are in bloom at this moment in early May, consider the "flowers" of the Fraser magnolia, the cranberry viburnum, and the ox-eye daisy (see attached photos). I put "flowers" in quotes to indicate that these flowers differ considerably in their structure. The magnolia is a very large single flower. The viburnum contains a group of flowers which are not equal- the large white flowers around the edge are sterile and are apparently designed to attract insects to the small fertile hermaphroditic flowers in the center. The familiar daisy (a composite) is a complex group of a large number of flowers which are specialized to produce either ray/petal or disc flowers; but the overall effect is that one is observing a single flower! You can see how these could represent an evolutionary sequence from the more primitive (magnolia) to the more advanced (daisy).

So what is a flower? It is simply a reproductive structure whose sole function is to propagate the species. The wonder lies in the incredibly complex forms and variations in patterns of growth, pollination and seed dispersal. Does the exhilarating riot of color and form exist only because of the eyes of insects and birds with color vision who will pollinate the flowers and disperse the seeds? Probably so, but we can consider ourselves fortunate that we are descended from primates with color vision who needed to be able to distinguish between ripe and green fruits and to distinguish leaf color.

Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL