Flowers’ roles considered in ecosystems and economics

A pollination ecologist ventures into human realm with new book

The Reason for Flowers

TULIP MANIA  Cut flowers are big business today. In 17th century Holland, tulips were coveted and their prices soared.

Kanegen/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Reason for Flowers
Stephen Buchmann
Scribner, $26

In the art of seduction, flowers have few equals. With sweet nectar and protein-packed pollen, some blooms lure bats and lizards as well as the proverbial birds and bees to play unwitting roles in fertilization. Other flowers, which evolution has sculpted to mimic potential mates of credulous insects, merely inspire frustrated desire among pollinators.

Over the last 130 million years or so, flowers have evolved from pollen-making pipsqueaks about a millimeter across to include blossoms that are large, showy and fragrant. Scientists have identified some 250,000 species of flowering plants, pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann writes in The Reason for Flowers. About two-thirds of those species are endangered or threatened, mostly because of habitat loss but also thanks to climate change.

Buchmann does much more than chronicle the evolution of flowers since the dinosaur era. He explores the myriad roles that blossoms play in the human realms of art and literature as well as in food and the economy.

The fruits and seeds of animal-pollinated flowers account for about one-third of the average human diet, Buchmann reports. Flowers are also big business: Worldwide, about 15 billion stems make their way to buyers each year. More than half pass through the most sprawling building in the world, a hangarlike facility near Amsterdam. The building covers more than half a square kilometer and hosts auctions processing about 21 million flowers each day. Breeders can easily spend $100,000 bringing a new variety of flower to market; those striving to create a holy grail of blossoms such as a truly blue rose may spend millions.

The Reason for Flowersis a riveting account of the science, history and culture surrounding blooms since the dawn of humankind. Besides inspiring myths and perfume manufacturers, flowers have fueled economic manias that rival the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s: During the height of tulip enthusiasm in the Netherlands in the 17th century, purchasing a tulip could cost more than hiring a famous Dutch artist to paint its image. 

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