Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Seeing flowers in a new light.

A friend had invited me to a function to mark the inauguration of his new office. To demonstrate my classiness, I dropped by on the way at a star-hotel to pick up a bunch of flowers from the bouquet shop there. I told the valet not to take my car away as I would be back in exactly 5 minutes, which is the time I estimated that I would need to select the flowers, pay and rush back.

A bunch of red-coloured flowers looked fine to me and I asked for the price. Not so fast, said the lady there. “What was the occasion?”. Red roses have romantic connotations and I had better be careful. Unhappy occasions require more sober-coloured flowers such as white carnations. Orchids are good for birthdays, blah, blah.

Anyway, after a good 30 minutes, I came out of the shop armed with a floral arrangement of assorted colours.

It was when I was getting into the car that it hit me that I knew nothing about flowers. I couldn’t have identified any of the flowers in that shop, except for the rose maybe. If you showed me pictures of various flowers, I could perhaps come up with 7 or 8 names. That’s it.

Later, when I got back home, I googled for an old essay that I had read, titled, “How flowers changed the world”, by an American naturalist named Loren Eiseley. In that lovely and scholarly piece, Eisely explains how the emergence of flowers had made such a difference to evolution of life on Earth.
Once upon a time there were no flowers at all.
A little while ago—about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates time in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet—flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator,one would have seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.

Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms—the flowering plants, Even the great evolutionist, Charles Darwin, called them “an abominable mystery,” because they appeared so suddenly and spread so fast.

Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know—even man himself—would never have existed. Francis Thompson, the English poet, once wrote that one could not pluck a flower without troubling a star. Intuitively he had sensed like a naturalist the enormous interlinked complexity of life. Today we know that the appearance of the flowers contained also the equally mystifying emergence of man.
   He concludes the essay in this grand fashion.
Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. Archaeopteryx, the lizard-bird, might still be snapping at beetles on a sequoia limb; man might still be a nocturnal insectivore gnawing a roach in the dark. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.
The next time I order a bouquet I’ll do it more respectfully. We exist because of the flowers.


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