Flower Power | Why Blossoms Are Critical to Life on Earth

In 1965, the poet Allen Ginsberg coined the term “flower power.” Boy, was he right

Plants first appeared on land 425 million years ago. These early organisms, members of the kindgom Plantae , reproduced by scattering spores that contained their clones. But these land-based spores weren’t as well suited to surviving the harsh ecosystems of terra firma as their sea-borne predecessors. So plants developed seeds. These plants were conifers — trees like pines, redwoods and junipers. Today, botanists have identified over 280,000 flowering plants.

The earliest known fossil of flowering plant is of Archaefructus liaoningensis (shown here) and is dated to be around 125 million years old. Unfortunately, science does not have a continuous fossil records of flowers, so we don’t know exactly how they evolved. But we do know why they are important. To be sure, flowers don’t just look pretty and smell nice — they are absolutely critical to life on Earth.

The flower’s main function is to spread DNA — to reproduce the individual and the species. And the majority of plant species cannot self-pollinate (that would decrease diversity), and instead rely on such vectors as wind, water, insects, birds, bats and other animals to transfer pollen from one individual to another.

Through the process of photosynthesis, flowers create simple sugars, which feed ants, bees, butterflies, beetles and a whole range of other insects essential to the food chain. Also, without flowers, many plants that are crucial to the Earth’s food supply would become extinct. They are also critical to the changing of seasons and provide critical habitat for a host of microorganisms.

But outside of their biological and ecological importance, flowers also impact the emotional lives of Homo sapiens . According to “An Environmental Approach to Positive Emotion: Flowers,” a 2005 study conducted by Jeannette Haviland-Jones, director of the Human Development Lab at Rutgers University, and published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology , “flowers have immediate and long-term positive effects on reactions, mood, social behaviors and even memory for both males and females.”

Haviland-Jones found that women who received flowers reported “more positive moods 3 days later,” and that a flower given to either gender in an elevator “elicited more positive social behavior than other stimuli.”

“Flowers are rewarding because they have evolved to rapidly induce positive emotion in humans, just as other plants have evolved to induce varying behavioral responses in a wide variety of species leading to the dispersal or propagation of the plants,” says Haviland-Jones.

Her research adds credence to what the Buddha asserted in the 5th century BCE: “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.”