Flowers: Points of View and a little History

I’ve been photographing flowers for many years.  Though not quite as long as they’ve been around, which apparently is more than a 100 million years.  Their arrival on earth and subsequent total domination of the plant world is quite interesting but more about that later.

What struck me as I clicked away, capturing scores of different Irises at the Presby Gardens a couple of weeks ago, was how I became a little desensitized to their beauty, even though there were tremendous variations in shape, size, color, etc.  A kind of habituation to visual splendor.

But then I decided to try a different view, a bee’s perspective if you will, by moving in closer and closer.  The result is shown below, two images of the same flower – one usual, the other zooming in.

Which makes your brain work harder?  There is a physiological (and perhaps psychological) principle behind the question.  Evidently the mind is quite an economical organ – it uses a process to limit energy expenditure. As you are exposed to new and different stimuli, your brain has to first assimilate them, absorb and take them in.  Then it has to accommodate them, fit them in, categorize them and position them within all the billions of other pieces of information in your neurological database.  This all takes a lot of work.  But once all this is done, the next time you see a flower, the mind can take a shortcut, recall the label and say, “oh, this is a flower, neat color, pretty petals, etc. – I don’t really have to look carefully.”

But of course this process, while economical, leads to looking rather than seeing, getting in the way of having a “beginner’s mind.”  Kind of what Picasso meant when he was talking about art, whose purpose he said was, “washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

Now to some history: you might think flowering plants (called angiosperms) are pretty old, having appeared about 100 million years ago.  But as someone from National Geographic put it, if the world’s history were compressed to one hour, flowers have been around for only the last 90 seconds.  In terms of numbers of species they dwarfed the conifers and ferns (gymnosperms) that came before them by several hundred million years.  What appears to get the paleobotanists’ knickers all in a knot is how quickly flowering plants completely came to dominate the plant world, something like 20 to 1.  This quick succession appears to have really irked Darwin, who referred to it as the “abominable mystery” – a bit of a spanner in the works of his evolutionary theory. His point of view of course required genetic variations making species adept at adapting over long periods of time.

 There continue to be many explanations, one of which is that, conveniently, flowers have male and female parts while pine trees only produce male or female pine cones.  Another is that, unlike trees, which have long lives, flowers live, reproduce and die in shorter lifespans.

Don’t know if the experts will resolve all this soon, but we can all agree that flowering plants, along with their insect partners, have a lot to do with human survival, supplying us with the fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables of our existence.