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What’s so special about flowers ? 

Consider this:-

Have you ever looked at a summer garden full of flowers and asked yourself why it looks like that?  Why are so many flowers attractive to the eye and (often) scented?  Part of it is down to the gardener of course - he grows them because they look and smell good.  But that is only part of the answer; they had to exist in the first place in order for gardener to grow them, or for the nurseries to breed new forms.  The same applies to many fruits: the tomato for instance, is bright red, shiny and looks appealing, which is part of its success.  If it were a dirty brown colour, covered in warts and smelled rank, it wouldn’t be nearly so popular, even if it were just as nutritious.  But do flowers and fruits take so much trouble with their appearance for our benefit?  Well, yes and no.

While appearance may not be the be all and end all, it is certainly a large part of the story, though perhaps not for the reasons you think.  For neither are the whims and fancies of mankind the most important part of the story: humans and their hominid predecessors go back 5 or 6 million years at most, while the first flowering plants appeared somewhere between 200 and 250 million years ago; so in the first instance they weren’t there for our benefit.  There are two main beneficiaries: first and foremost the plants themselves, and secondly insects.  So far as the plants are concerned, it’s all about producing offspring - the ultimate purpose of all life forms - i.e. sex.  From the insects’ point of view it’s about food (yes, and occasionally sex). 

The plant needs a mechanism to exchange pollen with other plants, so it generates a structure called a flower which is designed to attract insects.  It looks good, it smells good, and above all, it contains nectar (essentially a sugar solution) as a food source.  To get to the nectar the insect has to push its way past the anthers and the stigma.  In the process it transfers pollen, picked up on visits to other flowers, onto the stigma, and at the same time gets covered in more pollen from the anthers.  Then off it goes to another flower for more nectar - etc.

So it’s a straightforward deal: in return for a free meal, the insect provides a transport service to carry pollen from flower to flower.  That’s it then – no need for human intervention.

Or is there?  Is it likely that for instance the Agapanthus would have made it from southern Africa to western Europe, or that the Rhododendron would have emerged from the Himalayan foothills, and spread over much of the temperate zone, without human intervention?

And what about fruit: would the tomato have come down from its home in the Peruvian uplands and spread to virtually everywhere on the planet without the help of man?  Most fruits exist to be eaten: whatever eats them is often unable to digest the seeds, which pass through the gut and get spread across the landscape either by bird, animal or man.  Man is especially useful because he has access to planes, trains and ships, so the seeds travel further and faster. 

So, if you’re an ambitious plant, here’s what you do:-

1. Evolve a tasty and attractive looking fruit.
2. Refrain from being poisonous.
3. Catch the attention of Homo sapiens,

- and you’ll go places – literally. 

Maybe human beings aren’t a complete waste of space after all.

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