Flowers Today

Sometime between 70 and 100 million years ago, a slow explosion took place. Botanists refer to it as the "great radiation". It began in a time when the surface of our earth was green and more green, conifers and ferns, mostly. Then the giant and dominant existing gymnosperms slowly gave way to flowering plants, the angiosperms. It was the number of flowering species that exploded; it continued for 30 to 40 million years, and still goes on today.

The ignition of this bomb ready to explode and change the world forever was the development of the "petal". The angiosperms were beginning to slowly but surely colonize the world. They'd been around for 130 million years. Their time had come.

It was a new page in earth's history and the page's name was color. A rather bland (various shades of green) planet was rapidly becoming infused with colors and forms for which you or I might give our eyeteeth to be present for the duration. Imagine, witnessing the myriad ways flowering plants change a world. Imagine a time-lapse slide show over 40 million years. We wouldn't live long enough, but what a dream.

This explosion of color was accompanied by great payoffs (bribes?) for those creatures that plants might enlist in the task of furthering the cause. By standing out in the landscape and advertising to their benefactors, they offered the rewards associated with their color: fragrance, pollen, and nectar. The pollinating partners came, did a mighty important job, and continued to evolve along with the flowering plants.

Today it is warm and bright and perfect for growing flowers for the many rewards they offer. Seed companies sell quantities in the multi-millions to repeat, satisfied customers. They develop new cultivars, hybrids and all manner of variations to seduce the devotee.

Nurseries and garden centers have to be a little clairvoyant when it comes to ordering, but the literature sent out and the advertising support steer things in the direction that says that the customer comes first. If we don't have what he seeks, maybe we can order it for him. Any garden center or nursery that values your business will make an effort to accommodate you. That's why we shop locally.

And, if not, that's why there are seed companies, many with varying specialties. There are also a great number of mail order companies that sell plants that you might not find locally.

Flowers to grow, share, display, enjoy, and especially celebrate. Without flowers human life would most likely not be possible. But, here we are. The things about flowers that we are passionate about, or, maybe I should say enthusiastic, include fragrance, taste, color, form or structure, and display. There are so many types of gardens possible, depending on one's focus. These might include the Zen garden, the moon garden, the white garden, the daytime fragrance garden, and the nighttime fragrance garden. Then there are the cutting garden, the garden of everlastings, and the herb garden.

Fragrance was used by the ancient Romans, Persians and Arabs, and it was used with great extravagance. Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the importance of plant aromas as early as 2600 B.C. Cleopatra was known for the perfumed sails that announced her coming from some distance.

Many years ago my company, Family Tree, did the installation and maintenance of the interior plantings at the headquarters of Calvin Klein Cosmetics in New York City. Being immersed into a world in which everyone around you has an intense interest in fragrance and aroma was both fascinating and disarming. Young, and by any man's standards, very attractive women would surround me and my two helpers, wipe our perspiration, and ask if they might put two or three new test fragrances on us. They knew we'd be there for a few hours. But, I digress.

Behavioral research has shown that seeing and living with flowers, having cut flowers indoors, growing flowers from seeds or transplants, all of these have a very positive effect on our lives. People are more compassionate towards others, have reduced stress and anxiety, reduced depression and negativity. In the presence of flowers people feel happier, more enthusiastic and energetic.

There is much evidence that supports the healing power of flowers, specifically. Victims of torture, physical and psychological, talk of renewed hope when surrounded by blossoms. Prisoners incarcerated have demonstrated that flowers and flowering plants produce a positive impact in their lives. Hospital patients demonstrate speedier recoveries after procedures if the room has fresh flowers. Photos and paintings of flowers have a similar effect.

It is mid-June. You may have many flowers blooming in containers, floral beds, window boxes, or on trees and shrubs. The garden centers have been humming with activity since before Memorial Day. Community beautification projects are in full swing. Flowers figure prominently in almost all of these.

If you wish to add some fragrance to commingle with the sweet smell of earth, or the scent of newly mown grass, here's a list of some of the most popular: jasmine, moonflower, honeysuckle, tuberose, sweet violet, phlox, nicotiana, lilac, gardenia, Peruvian daffodil, oleander, narcissus, gladiolus tristis, stock, lily of the valley, sweet pea, datura, daylily, evening primrose, four o'clock, brugmansia, night blooming jessamine. There are many others.

Many of these are fragrant in the evening after sunset, a treat to those who must be away at work during the day. I would add orange, lemon and lime, wonderfully fragrant, but houseplants once the cold comes.

Flowers that supply bright colors are numerous and include canna, daffodil, petunia, rhododendron, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, gladiolus, lilies, marigold, impatiens, tulip, zinnia, evening primrose, statice, vinca, poppy, cardinal flower, bee balm, clematis, snapdragon, dahlia, rose in an abundance of colors and fragrances, and so on.

Color plays a strong role in influencing our mood and expressing our personality. You can create romance, excitement, peace, warmth, coolness, and mystery. The time of day and the lighting change everything. There are over 10 million perceptible colors, 2500 named colors, and both the National Bureau of Standards and the Royal Horticultural Society Color Charts are used in horticulture for identifying color hues. So what color goes best with which? The best and most striking combinations may be for contrast or harmony. It is a complex undertaking. Surely your own taste might be the way to go, but if you have some qualms, I suggest using a color wheel, available at most art and craft stores.

Incidentally, a scientist named Purkinje, in the early 1800s noticed and wrote about what became known as the Perhinje effect: as light intensity decreases, red flowers appear to fade faster than blue ones in the same brightness. Walking in fields of flowers at dawn, the blue flowers looked more intense than the red. During the day, the red flowers looked more dominant than the blue. And, as the light waned, the blue once again became the more noticeable. White remains visible the latest in the evening.

In addition to fragrance and color, we grow flowers for display where they grow and for cutting and displaying indoors. Many lend themselves to drying for enduring arrangements when all outside is gray and bleak. These are referred to as everlastings, and are another excuse for a new garden bed. Buds, seed pods, a variety of contrasting textures and forms all combine with the subtler color combinations that endure in winter. Some might include wormwood, bittersweet, Chinese lanterns, baby's breath, statice, yarrow, straw flowers, chive seed heads, and tansy among others.

When you are out and about among your garden beds, collect some astilbes, asters, cockscombs, delphiniums, hydrangeas, lilacs, marigolds, ornamental onions, peonies, roses, snapdragons, sunflowers, sweet peas, and sweet Williams. Plunge the lot into some rather warm water to which you have added a floral preservative, and step back. Marvel at the variety and the miracle that has taken place over the 40 or so million years since the development of the petal. We are so blessed.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on June 13, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.