Americans spend a fortune on flowers and flowering plants, potted and cut. Articles in recent years show that we spend well over $35B on lawn and garden supplies, and an additional $45B for gardening and landscaping services. For cut flowers and house plants, add $40B to that.
How many of us have traveled miles out of our way to visit a beautifully landscaped home or botanical gardens? Here in south Louisiana we have lush gardens at Avery Island, where Tabasco Sauce is made, and at nearby Rip Van Winkle Gardens. So on top of the preceeding, we spend a lot of money just to look at flowers and plants.
Plants are symbols of prosperity and success; we expect flowers and landscaping with a modest home, but also a mansion, a corporation, or a university. The gardens at Versailles, and at many palaces, are as famous as the fabulous art within the palaces.
And flowers are therapeutic, particularly wildflowers. They are not only lovely to look at, but calming, we get a great sense of peace and luxury from fields of wildflowers. The loveliness of them, in fact, has produced an interesting tax saver: by planting wildflowers along our highways, government doesn’t have to mow as frequently. And we all get to drive through serene, attractive landscapes.
I previously explored possible reasons we’re attracted to perfumes and sweet-smelling flowers, and how they might be tied to health. But it occurs to me that the visual experience is linked to a different kind of health.
Imagine you are part of a prehistoric tribe, migrating to escape either overpopulation or war. Suddenly you come upon an area rich with flowers. They tell you many things.
Some conclusions are directly obvious. For one, the area has plenty of rainfall. In addition, the air is fresh, and there is plenty of sun.
Flowers also suggest some things indirectly. The rain drains off into streams and rivers, and/or it collects in lakes in the vicinity. So there is probably fresh water nearby.
The flowers means that you are not in a forest. That means there are animals browsing back tree seedlings, so there are herbivores to hunt.
The herbivores, in turn, suggest that the area is relatively free of disease, from swamps, stagnant air, and decay. All of these would support increased numbers of insects, including disease vectors such as mosquitoes, house flies, and tics.1)I am oversimplifying, of course. For instance, male mosquitoes drink nectar, so mosquitoes need both stagnant water and flowers.
And even though only one species of flower is visible, you can safely conclude that the area has a rich plant diversity. That logic requires a multi-step consideration. First, flowers mean that bees or other pollinators are present. Second, to enhance fertilization, flowers bloom in brief crops that die off in a few weeks. If the current flowers you see were the only species flowering in the area, the pollinators could not survive throughout the year. So you can be confident that there is an abundance of flowering plants in the area, blooming in succession throughout the warm seasons. And finally, many flowering plants are also fruiting plants, so you have a reasonable expectation of various berries and fruits during the year.
Finally, flowers suggest fertile soil for farming and raising livestock. So perhaps our delight in flowers is about biology, and survival.
Our distant ancestors would not have known these things. Rather, those ancestors who were delighted by, and attracted to, flowers were more likely to decide to settle where flowers are found. Because of all the things that flowers suggest, people living around them would enjoy health advantages, have a better chance of prospering, and produce children faster than humans who chose other places to live. It is another example of non-controversial ‘small’ evolution, of seemingly minor factors that have nevertheless shaped our bodies and behavior in important ways. And it is a type of sociobiology which is more acceptable to more scholars.
As a way of thinking about this, we can imagine that other animals might find flowers to be repellent. For instance, animals that were designed to survive in the desert, the forest, or the polar ice caps might not find fields of wildflowers attractive at all, and perhaps even repulsive.
Humans are not genetic machines, of course. Consider that unlike any other animals, we indeed survive in the desert, the forest, and even on the polar caps, as well as on the prairies. Nevertheless, we are still influenced by our genes, we are still attracted to richer environments. Flowers are one gauge of a richer environment.
The point is, our genetic makeup is not controlling, but it is certainly important. In fact, I would argue that much of what is ‘evil’ about humanity is genetic; even when backed up by some semblance of logic, most evil starts out with one or more of our genetic drives, our ‘lusts’. So to understand ourselves, and to make a better world for us all, it will help to be aware of those factors.
Flowers are not evil, of course. But they nevertheless represent a small example of small evolution. It would appear that the delight we take from flowers is another of our behaviors that are, in reality, linked to biological success.
Wildflowers courtesy of Wikimedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||I am oversimplifying, of course. For instance, male mosquitoes drink nectar, so mosquitoes need both stagnant water and flowers.|