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Book Review 254: The Rose's Kiss

September 30, 2012 - Harry Eagar
THE ROSE'S KISS: A Natural History of Flowers, by Peter Bernhardt. 267 pages, illustrated. Chicago paperback

In this engaging and slightly didactic collection of essays, Peter Bernhardt laments that American higher education seems to have dropped botany from the menu of things a broadly informed person might want to know about.

A hundred years ago, field botany, he says, was a regular feature of high school curriculums, at a level that would be impressive for an upper level collegiate course today. Of course, 100 years, a tenth of boys and girls went to high school, so the proportion of Americans who had formal training botany was not high.

However, the proportion who knew a lot about flowers was high. Country people learn a great deal (not all of it accurate) about plants.

One reason, I suspect, that plant-lore is less attractive to today's students (aside from the items Bernhardt cites, like a concentration on “useful” or instrumental courses) is that city folk – 98% – don't see much plant life. Even in suburbs, the selection of plants is restricted to horticultural favorites, mostly; and (as Bernhardt notes in one of the essays in his book “Natural Affairs”) even city kids who go to botanical exhibits are seldom exposed to natural communities of plants – cactuses from all continents are mixed up together in one place, orchids in another.

The country kid, if at all observant, sees the plants interacting through the seasons.

In “The Rose's Kiss,” Bernhardt, in his graceful fashion, surveys the many ways flowers attract pollinators, or, in some cases, rely on wind; and he explains the consequences for them – and us – of the strategies they choose.

Humans eat mostly grass seeds, and grasses reproduce by wind-carried pollen (although a small fraction of successful gametes are helped by animal pollinators).

Knowing something about pollination can be useful in daily life, even if you are not a farmer or gardener.

For example, pollen is very sensitive to moisture. When wetted, the grains swell, burst and lose their ability to inseminate female sex organs. For this reason, the effective range of wind pollination is extremely short, a matter of a few score yards.

Many millions of hours of fretting about GMO plants would be saved for more useful fretting if the anti-GMO crowd understood this characteristic of flowering.

Likewise, habitues of natural food stores might like to know about bee pollen sold as an energy food. Bernhardt writes, “That may be so, but I've dissected pollen pellets, and I know they'll also give you bee lice and leg hairs.”

Understanding what bees do is remarkably recent. Less than 200 years ago, botanists thought bees were mere nectar thieves. Now, we understand that “bees are a flower's winged penis.”

Here we also learn why there are very few true white flowers – in ultraviolet light, which pollinators can see even if we cannot, the white parts have guide markings to lure insects (or birds, bats or rodents) to the sex chamber.

In a too brief final chapter, Bernhardt summarizes our knowledge of the evolution of flowers. Only since the 1980s have many relevant fossils been discovered. They tend to be small, even microscopic.

There are hints that the first flowers showed up even earlier than 225 million years ago, when the evidence starts firming up. Seeds go back at least 360 million years, but they were “naked,” lacking the organs (petals, sepals etc.) that make flowers interesting.

Most generalities about flowers have an exception somewhere. “Given enough time, Nature will humiliate a botanist,” Bernhardt writes.


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