“The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world…” – Loren Eiseley
Flowers on Mother’s Day! I’m musing about millions of cheerful flowers in vases with “I love you cards” in millions of homes. Such a wonderful tradition is this day –to show our love for our mothers who nurtured us in the way Mother Earth nurtures all life.
To give the gift of blossoms and blooms honors the exuberance of flowers that grace this planet with life as intricate as an orchid. Today, on Mother’s Day and the time of bountiful wildflowers blooming madly in spring, I’m also thinking about a powerful essay I read long ago in high school called, “How Flowers Changed the World.”
My copy of naturalist Loren Eiseley’s, The Immense Journey, is yellowed and the pages are falling out. I’ve carried his 1946 book of essays from house to house since my teens. He’s one of my nature author mentors, right up there with Rachel Carson, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau.
In one sweeping essay, he takes us hurtling back in time 100 million years to a time without flowers when only the color green prevailed in the plant world. The emergence of the angiosperms (flowering plants), he called “a soundless, violent explosion” that lasted millions of years—fast in geologic time.
“Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know—even man himself—would never have existed.”
That’s a bold claim, yet he made a convincing case —taking us back to the Cretaceous at the close of the Age of Reptiles when warm-blooded mammals were “ a few mousy little creatures hidden in trees and brush.” Even birds were then no more than lizard-like “with carnivorous teeth flapping awkwardly among archaic shrubbery.”
All were waiting for one great event—the Age of Flowers. The secret lies in the word itself. Angiosperm means “encased seed.” The seed (initiated by a fertilizing pollen grain) lies in the heart of a flower and is equipped already as the “embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food.” From there, seeds travel in ingenious ways—like the fireweed seed on the wind (below) or luscious berries devoured by birds.
That amazing fertilized seed relies on “tantalizing nectars and pollens” to attract their pollinators. Without flowers we would not have butterflies, bees, or hummingbirds. That fact, while wondrous, is one connection, but Eiseley took it to the next level. Flowers made it possible for mammals to evolve in ways that required the energy of flowering plants, something grasses and other non-flowering plants and trees could never provide.
“Apes were to become men, in the inscrutable wisdom of nature, because flowers had produced seeds and fruits in such tremendous quantities that a new and totally different store of energy had become available in concentrated form,” he wrote.
When we show our love for our mothers with flowers, we’re drawn to their beauty and the way flowers make us feel and that we want others to feel too—smiling, happy, and beloved. The gift of flowers is something more. Flowers are responsible for us. In turn, we have a responsibility to them and to the mother we all share—this planet.
Happy Mother’s Day. And Happy Mother Earth Day—may your flowers always grow wildly in your wild gardens!