Why do we express so many emotions with flowers?
The Scientist 15:43, Nov. 26, 2001
Why We Say It With Flowers
By Barry A. Palevitz
Like everybody else, I blanched at the horror of Sept. 11. But ever since, I've been asking myself what might seem like a trite question in light of the tragedy. In a way I guess I'm trying to extract my own brand of meaning from the rubble. Here goes: Why did so many people reach out to firefighters and their lost comrades following the Twin Towers disaster, by solemnly laying blossoms at the firehouse door? For that matter, why did the British heap flowers in front of Buckingham Palace when a princess died tragically before her time?
An old TV commercial for an international florist put it best: 'Say it with flowers.' A red rose tells a sweetheart 'I love you' on Valentine's day. A floral display on the pulpit helps worshipers find solace during religious services. A gift of flowers tells the bereaved we care. A basket of blooms brightens a hospital room. Orchids and baby's breath capture the joy of a bride on her wedding day, as the groom looks on with pride, a sprig of orange blossoms in his lapel.
"It's a common denominator worldwide," says Alan Armitage, professor of horticulture at the University of Georgia in Athens. Armitage should know. A recognized authority on everything from amaranths to zinnias, he tests the latest varieties vying for the prestigious 'All American Selection' label.
Despite the tragedy, hardened New Yorkers will probably cultivate window boxes and plant gardens atop their high-rise apartments next spring. Others will trek to local botanical gardens. According to Karl Lauby, vice president of communications for the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, "People come to gardens and find a new closeness with loved ones. The intimacy and tranquility of the space and the simplicity and directness of the experience puts family members in touch with each other in new ways."
Armitage agrees that flowers satisfy a need for the basics in life. "The [Twin Towers] disaster showed the importance of basics--family and loved ones," he says. "Simple things are part of those basics, and nothing is more simple than love and beauty."
Using flowers to express emotion isn't new. Long before Matthew 6:28 suggested we consider the lilies of the field, saying "even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these," Nebuchadnezzar II gave his wife Amyitis the biggest bouquet ever, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.1 Egyptians planted royal gardens in Thebes thousands of years ago, with the beautiful lotus or water lily as a religious centerpiece.
In the Abrahamic tradition, God put man in a Garden of Eden. Jews still marry under a "chupah" or canopy, adorned with leaves and flowers. Long before La Dolce Vita--more than a thousand years before Shakespeare toasted the sweetness of a rose--trendy Roman yuppies slept on beds of them. Remember the flower children of the 1960s? In the midst of antiwar demonstrations, a daisy in a rifle barrel said "give peace a chance."
In botanical terms, a flower is the sexual organ of the most successful group of land plants, the angiosperms, more than 250,000 species strong. It's because of the flower, and its ability to lure a variety of animals using food, color, and perfume enticements to enhance the species' genetic diversity through cross pollination, that angiosperms were so successful evolutionarily. Co- evolution of angiosperms with pollination vectors including beetles, bees, termites, ants, birds, and bats has produced incredibly specialized floral designs, from petals modified into landing platforms to runway 'lights' in the form of ultraviolet absorbing spots that guide insects to their target. Some orchids look and smell so much like female bees, they trick males into copulating with them, all in the plant's favor of course.
A flower forms when a shoot apical meristem switches from making leaves and buds to producing petals, stamens, and carpels. For thousands of years, using the same genetic material evolution works with, humans have "improved" nature's handiwork for our own purposes, so that even the humblest of flowers, like a simple chrysanthemum, is now breathtakingly resplendent.
In his recent book, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the shoe is really on the other foot. Apples, tulips, and potatoes were actually manipulating us, not vice versa, when we domesticated them.2 Plants fooled us into spreading them the world over, aided by smugglers, seed catalogs, and spring nursery sales. So who's the smart one?
That may be stretching it a bit. Still, it's fair to ask, what drives such preoccupation and industry on our part? It can't be just food--nobody eats tulips. Most scientists won't answer such questions--they're too philosophical to the nose--but some evolutionary biologists and psychologists aren't as reluctant.
Harvard entomologist and biodiversity champion Edward O. Wilson might argue that our fondness for flowers is part of a more general affinity for nature--what he calls biophilia. We love flowers for the same reason we build houses nestled in sylvan settings and flock to the mountains each fall to see leaves change color. According to Wilson, "to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises in its currents."3
That still begs the question: Why do we crave nature, where did the need come from, and why is it so ingrained in our psyche that it seems more subconscious than conscious?
Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge thinks an affinity for flowers is rooted in the evolution of our species. In the savannahs of Africa, our biological Eden, we quickly identified flowers as "harbingers of growth, marking the site of future fruit, nuts, or tubers for creatures smart enough to remember them," writes Pinker.4 In other words, placing great stock in flowers was an adaptive response that allowed our ancestors to locate food and thereby survive to reproductive age.
"My guess is it's a combination of two psychological phenomena," elaborates Pinker. "Seeing flowers as objects of beauty and well being, which is part of a human habitat preference, and giving valued commodities as gifts, of which high-quality food is the prototypical example. I think both are universal, and probably took place early in the evolution of modern Homo sapiens." Though we eventually settled down as farmers growing our own food, the affinity for flowers was hardwired in our genes, and our psyche.
University of Michigan scientist Stephen Kaplan agrees: "The long and the short of it is that one can make a cogent evolutionary argument" for why we love flowers. "It's adaptive to find flowers attractive and valuable, since wanting to stay where they are puts one in a better position to reap the harvest when the fruits follow." Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen of the University of Washington in Seattle add, "it may be difficult for any of us, with the year-round supplies of a wide array of fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets, to understand the importance of the first salad greens of the season to people throughout most of human history."5
Together with wife Rachel, Kaplan has studied landscape preferences for years.6 When they showed slides of various landscapes to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, all gave highest ratings to sylvan scenes and forest glades. Says Kaplan, "as a rule, they could not explain why they liked what they liked, but they felt strongly about their choices." In other words, their preferences were subconscious.
Studies like Kaplan's document an innate human appreciation of nature.5,6 A gift of flowers to the sick or a pleasant view of nature from a hospital window can even speed recovery.7 But data supporting an evolutionary explanation of those effects are meager. Says Kaplan, "there is, as far as I know, no hard science to back up the argument." Then again, how many of us really care? Will digging into our deepest emotions keep us from stopping at a flower stand on the way home? Not a chance.
Barry A. Palevitz (email@example.com) is a contributing editor for The Scientist.
1. J. Goody, The Culture of Flowers, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
2. M. Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World, New York: Random House, 2001.
3. E.O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
4. S. Pinker, How the Mind Works, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.
5. G.H. Orians, J.H. Heerwagen, "Evolved responses to landscapes." In: The Adapted Mind. Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, J.H. Barkow et al. eds., Oxford U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 555-79.
6. S. Kaplan, "Environmental preference in a knowledge-seeking, knowledge-using organism." In, The Adapted Mind, pp. 581-98.
7. R.S. Ulrich, "View through a window may influence recovery from surgery," Science, 224:420-1, 1984.