Our vanishing flowers

Ours is one of the most colorful relationships of history: We need flowers for our very survival, and in turn flowers — the plants that exist as crop cultivars or horticultural cut flowers or potted beauties — rely on us to reproduce and spread.

Ours is one of the most colorful relationships of history: We need flowers for our very survival, and in turn flowers — the plants that exist as crop cultivars or horticultural cut flowers or potted beauties — rely on us to reproduce and spread. But all is not well in this storied partnership: We who behold or nurture flowers are condemning their wild relatives to extinction at an alarming rate, and the world is quickly becoming a lesser place without them.

Our prehistoric ancestors certainly made use of flowering plants. Imagine an early human forager 200,000 years ago, a woman walking from her camp searching for edible leaves, fleshy berries, tubers and hard seeds. She is a keen observer of nature, noticing and remembering when food plants and animals were scarce or abundant. Patches of flowering plants beckon as colorful and scented beacons in otherwise drab monotones of brown earth and green vegetation. Because of her past associations with flowers, she’ll return to the patch in a few weeks when the tasty berries have ripened. She knows what many moderns have forgotten — that flowers are the harbingers of the fruits and seeds that sustain and keep us healthy.

Flowers are relative newcomers: Only recently in the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history have they adorned special plants. For most of the distant past, except for the colors of male birds, butterflies and other insects, fish and lizards, the world was an expanse of brown and red soils and rocks, and green forests, savannas and meadows. Then something extraordinary happened. About 130 to 160 million years ago, the group of plants we know as angiosperms invented flowers and never looked back. Opinions vary since so many flowering plants have yet to be discovered or named, but the Earth may hold at least 350,000 uniquely different species.

Early insects that had fed on sap, leaves and sugary exudates in the “extrafloral” nectaries of ferns, cycads and their allies, began to visit the earliest flowers (such as Archaefructus) in search of protein-rich pollen and sweet nectar. Unknowingly, in their search for food these early flower-visiting insects became contaminated with and carried precious microscopic pollen grains. Pollinating animals became regular and dependable floral visitors, exactly the go-betweens that sessile plants required.

Turn your Rome Beauty or Red Delicious apple upside down and examine it closely. Those five small brown appendages are remnants of the once green sepals, and inside those are the shriveled remnants of the anthers and pistil, the reproductive organs of the apple blossom. Your sweet apple began its life as a delicate and ephemeral blossom on a fruit tree until visited by a pollinating bee. Once fertilized, the flower’s ovary grew thousands of times in size until it became a tasty apple.

This is the secret of flowers. They entice animals with their colors, shapes and scents, then reward them with pollen, nectar, essential oils, resins, shelter and even warmth. Flowers exist as living billboards signaling to insects, birds and bats, and sometimes us, for the sexual service of pollination they require. Flowers develop into fruits containing the seeds that become the next generation of plants — and the basis of many human foods.

Although the wind-pollinated cereal crops — including rice, wheat, maize and barley — keep the world’s 7.2 billion people from starvation, the colorful fruits and berries we relish keep us healthy and happy. Given a choice, who would prefer a bland, starchy maintenance diet? We can’t forget that the fruits and seeds of wildflowers, shrubs and trees also feed many of the world’s herbivorous wildlife, from Chesapeake Bay northern cardinals to African hornbills, along with fat bears, skunks, bats and even crocodiles. This is the vital link between flowers and food for many animals — including us.

Flowers and fruits are the basis for many medicines, while providing cotton, flax fibers and beverages. Roses, jasmine and ylang-ylang contribute their fragrant molecules as ingredients in the world’s costliest perfumes. Cut flowers are a multibillion-dollar industry. It’s becoming ever more apparent that we need flowers to maintain our health, our food supply, and for our happiness and mental abilities. Flowers also make us smile; they lift our spirits. Psychological studies indicate that floral scents may enhance long-term memory formation.

But now we are losing many flowering plants to extinction before we even knew they existed. An estimated 68 percent of the world’s flowering plants are now threatened or endangered. This staggering loss of diversity is due to anthropogenic causes, including habitat loss, degradation and invasive species.

Conversion of land for housing our ever-expanding human population and for new roads, mines and farms erases wildflowers’ living space and threatens yet more native plants. Invasive (weedy) plants populate new areas, competing for space, light and nutrients with those already growing there. It is these trends that are driving the massive loss of flowering species.

Clearly, we cannot save all the native flowering plants, but we must not lose them all either. It would be impossible to individually rescue every species, like Hawaii’s Brighamia, or save them all in gardens, like Franklinia from Georgia. The greatest biodiversity of flowering plants occurs in rain forests like Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve. Governments and individuals must value and preserve existing parks and reserves, as well as expand and create new ones. The preservation of vast tracts of land to conserve rare species is useless, however, unless conservation laws are enforceable and local security forces are employed to prevent overcollection. This effort cannot simply be conservation on paper. There must be realistic funding for effective security, including park guards, while allowing for reasonable levels of ecotourism and bioprospecting.

It is my sincere hope that the delegates attending the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year will notice the handsome floral bouquets adorning the tables and stages — and listen to the important messages they are telling us.


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