How flowers changed the world

How flowers changed the world

Loren Eiseley

An acclaimed anthropologist explains why our planet would be an entirely different place today without flowering plants

Once upon a time there were no flowers at all.

A little while ago – about one hundred million years, as the geologist estimates in the history of our four-billion-year-old planet – flowers were not to be found anywhere on the five continents. Wherever one might have looked, from the poles to the equator, one would have seen only the cold dark monotonous green of a world whose plant life possessed no other color.

Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of the angiosperms – the flowering plants. Even the great evolutionist Charles Darwin called them “an abominable mystery,” because they appeared so, suddenly and spread so fast.

Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know – even man himself – would never have existed.

The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures not long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided the energy and changed the nature of the living world.

When the first simple flower bloomed on some raw upland late in the Dinosaur Age, it was wind pollinated, just like its early pine-cone relatives. It was a very inconspicuous flower because it had not yet evolved the idea of using the surer attraction of birds and insects to achieve the portation of pollen. It sowed its own pollen and received the pollen of other flowers by the simple vagaries of the wind. Many plants in regions where insect life is scant still follow this principle today. Nevertheless, the true flower – and the seed that it produced – was a profound innovation in the world of life.

The true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means “encased seed”) grew a seed in the heart of a flower – a seed whose development was initiated by a fertilizing pollen grain independent of outside moisture. But the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embyonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. Moreover, by featherdown attachments, as in dandelion or milkweed seed, it can be wafted upward on gusts and ride the wind for miles; or with hooks it can cling to a bear’s or a rabbit’s hide; or like some of the berries, it can be covered with a juicy, attractive fruit to lure birds, pass undigested through their intestinal tracts and be voided miles away.

The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. They got into strange environments heretofore never entered by the old spore plants or stiff pine-cone seed plants. The well-fed, carefully cherished little embryos raised their heads everywhere. Many of the older plants with more primitive reproductive mechanisms began to fade away under this unequal contest. They contracted their range into secluded environments. Some, like the giant redwoods, lingered on as relicts; many vanished entirely.

The world of the giants was a dying world. These fantastic little seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability. If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world had changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard-of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced concentrated foods in a way that the land had never seen before. The foods all came from the reproductive system of the flowering plants.

Without the gift of flowers and the infinite diversity of their fruits, man and bird, if they had continued to exist at all, would be today unrecognizable. The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.

A scientist and poet, the late Loren Eiseley was a distinguished anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He also received numerous honors for his prose, including his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. This essay is excerpted from his book The Immense Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. [C] 1957.)

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