Saturday, 29 June 2013

A World Without Flowers?!

Cruising my internet yesterday, I had a serendipitous encounter with “The American Scholar” (Phi Beta Kappa’s magazine). The title “How Flowers Changed the World” caught my eye. The author, Priscilla Long, explained that the title of her essay was taken, in homage, from Penn professor Loren Eiseley’s classic, ”The Immense Journey” (1957).

That’s the year my Carnegie Postdoctoral Grant began at Penn, and faster than you can say “Wow!” I was in a weekly seminar in which Loren was the dazzling muse! Indeed he was an initimable male Margaret Mead whose brilliant PMLA essay in 1947 almost moved me to change my major.

Indeed the next year I persuaded the brass at the yet to be opened Annenberg School of Communication to appoint my first mass media mentor the Philadelphian Gilbert Seldes (1895-1970) its first Dean—and I became his “gofer”, as in go for this, and go for that, all across these United States, boasting about the brilliant new graduate school we were fixing to begin in 1959! Talk about coincidences. And Gilbert found most of the Penn professors too Ivy for his pop cult taste! (even though he had graduated from Harvard after finishing Boys High in Philly.) So many evenings Loren, Gilbert and I blathered long into the night, fretting over the humanities.

So it was Old Timer Time as I deflowered his essay. It’s Pure Eiseley and highest attention Seldes. Flowers didn’t always dazzle us! Not a single one of the more than 250,000 (gulp) named species. Indeed flowering plants evolved out of non-flowering plants 150 million years ago. No wonder it took us so long to devise proms for justifying flowers for our dates.  And it was 475 millions year ago before the first land plants appeared. And all these land plants have only one ancestor. Green algae!

First came nonvascular plants like mosses, which can’t stand up  nor move water around their systems. Seedless vascular plants, such as ferns, can conduct water but don’t have seeds. They reproduce with spores, a single cell that can grow into an adult .But the adult plant that stems from a spore looks nothing like a fern! If you’ll permit a little lexical razzmatazz, it’s a “bisexual gametophyte” that produces a sperm and an egg. (Those damn Creators are a canny bunch.” The sperm is mobile so the egg stays attached. The fertilized zygote grows into a “diploid sporophyte”—the fern we know! Whew!

Let’s carefully take the next step. “Petals” the small leaves growing in a circle under the flower must connect with the male part “stamen.” They stick up within the flower, with tiny stems each holding one rice-shaped „anther“ which keeps the pollen. The center part of the flower, the narrow-lipped vase that swells at the bottom, is the female part the “carpel”.

The top part of the carpel is the “stigma” receives pollen stores the pollen

What really astounds me is how flowers have evolved their colors to seduce the pollinators that have evolved with them. Red flowers? Hummingbird! Yellow or bright purple? Honeybees! Flower scents also move pollinators! The carrion flower stinks of rotting flesh. The carrion fly, dizzy with the stink, lays its eggs in the wrong place (the flower) and pollinates it!

So the next time you have to buy your date a floral decoration, think how manic our flowery friends are as they go about their stimulating simulations.  If your vacation ploys exhaust you, please think of how hard our abundant self-decorators work to turn us on do diversely. Happy Summer!

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