Every human culture has a strong tie to flowers. They are on our clothes and in our houses. They are in poetry and art. Romance wouldn't be the same without flowers. We name girls and streets after them. They give us medicine and sometimes food. They are symbols of religion, ritual, love and other emotions. Flowers are sexy and beautiful and are literally, and figuratively, everywhere. Over 80% of all plants in the world produce flowers.
Flowers are so good at seduction that they have captivated a whole different division of life - animals. They attract butterflies, bees, bats, beetles, lizards, possums, and the wind. Once they morph into fruit a host of other animals are drawn into their world and help spread their seeds.
We can picture the flower that mirrors its bee pollinator in shape and color, but flowers have a million different tricks to get what they want. Some use rewards like sweet nectar, while others imprison their animal pollinator long enough to accomplish fertilization.
The tiniest and most delicate demonstration of physics I can imagine is found in the Mountain Laurel flower. It has stamens that grow tucked under like tense, waiting catapults. Once an insect lands - poof! the catapults are released and pollen shoots from the radial edges of the flower onto the insect in the center. This flower only has to attract an insect long enough for it to stop and take a look to get the job done.
Scientists have been amazed and perplexed by flowers for a long time. Darwin called them an "abominable mystery" because he, and no one since, has been able to figure out where, when or how this genetic mutation that developed flowers began. The generally accepted theory is that they evolved about 140 million years ago, probably on an island.
They made a huge leap from cone seed plants like ferns, ginkgoes, and conifers that depend only on wind and water for fertilization and seed dispersal. Using animals meant that plants could cover more distance, and that they could reproduce with more genetic possibilities. Hormones in the plant tell it when and how to alter the cells in its leaves and stems to become flowers. For the first flowers, this must have been a huge risk because it takes a lot of energy from the plant to make a flower. That is why scientists believe flowers developed on an island, because competition is great and things must takes risks to survive. A flowering tree called Amborella that grows on the Pacific island of New Caledonia is believed to have characteristics similar to the first flowers.
In 1912, the Mayor of Tokyo made a gift of 3000 cherry saplings to the United States.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Eliza Scidmore, the wife of a diplomat who had visited Japan in 1885, had been trying to import this tree to beautify the capitol. DC was after all built on a swamp and needed some landscaping attention.
Her many attempts failed until she enlisted the wife of President Taft. Together, they were able to garner public support and the attention of the Japanese embassy, who eventually made the gift of 3,000 cherry tree saplings. Many of the trees these women planted are still standing today.
Math in Flowers, Symmetry, Fibonacci, and a Fun Video
All petals are leaves that have been modified by the plant to both protect its reproductive organs and attract pollinators to them. Most petals are symmetrical in some fashion- some are arranged radially, while others may be bilaterally arranged. Regular flowers, like a buttercup, have petals that are all relatively the same in size and shape. Irregular flowers, like orchids, are arranged on at least one plane of symmetry.
Excellent video explanation of math in plants by Vihart- a super math genius who animates her videos and tells great stories.
Sculpting Dogwood Flowers
See how we turn flat sheet wax into wearable flower sculptures - then find out how the dogwood tree is more than just a beautiful bloom.