Book: “The Reasons for Flowers”


TED SIMONS: University of Arizona biology professor Stephen Buchmann has written a new book titled the reason for flowers. It's a look at the history of flowers, exploring and explaining their beauty, ecology, mythology and economics. Here now is Stephen Buchmann. Thank you for joining us. Good to have you here.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: glad to be here.

TED SIMONS: What is the reason for flowers?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Well, in one word, it's sex. But flowers are living buildboards when you think of their petals, you think of the sense, the colors, myriad shapes. They are living billboards that are basically advertising for sexual favors from bees, flies, beetles, moths, sometimes even us.

TED SIMONS: it really is the birds and the bees.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: it is.

TED SIMONS: I noticed reading your book especially in the earlier parts it's all about reproduction. It's nonstop out there. [laughter] They just never quit. It's an interesting read. It gets technical at times but it's really very nicely done. Who did you write the book for?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: I tried to write it for a general audience but I think an audience that might include cooks, artists, naturalists. As you mention, I bring up flowers, how they have inspired poets -- sonnets, Shakespeare you can find flowers in literature throughout the ages.

TED SIMONS: As far as your love affair with flowers, it started as a kid, didn't it?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: it did. By about the third grade I think I knew I wanted to be an entomologist. In high school I started chasing bees. They have been my passion, native and honeybees. They have taken me around the world. I consider myself a pollination ecologist. What I do is figure out what goes to flowers. What color they are, what fragrance, what kind of nectar they might have. So that really dictates what type of visitor and more importantly not just visitor but what type of pollinator will visit the flowers.

TED SIMONS: Are you surprised that so few people know anything about what we look at them, see them, smell them we point at them, but we don't really know them. Pistils and stamens. Those are words from Junior high biology.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Botany 101. I think flowers touch everyone's lives. We use them to decorate our homes and offices. We wear them in the form of expensive blended perfumes, which are florally derived, at least a lot of them -- a lot of them are still. So we cook with them, decorate with them. We're inspired by them. I like to think that our hominid ancestors three, four, 5 million years ago that flowers were Harbingers of food. Fruits, berries, other seeds that were collected. I think that probably early hominids found flowers, yeah, I'll come back in three weeks and harvest the fruit. Really at one point I make in the book is that we would not exist as a species were it not for evolution of the world's 300,000 flowers about 130 million years ago.

TED SIMONS: Interesting. We also take pictures of flowers. You have taken a number of photographs. Obviously it sounds like a hobby. These are beautiful photographs.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Thank you, it is a serious addiction.

TED SIMONS: Yes. But when you take photos of these flowers and when we look at these things, there's so much going on there when you look at a flower.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: right. The one on the monitor now is a cactus flower.

TED SIMONS: That looks like -- what are we looking at?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: You're looking at dozens of petals and then that kind of shaving brush are the male parts, that contain the pollen. In the center you see the white lobes of the stigma. Pollination is nothing more or nothing less than wind, water, or a pollinator, moving pollen from the male parts of the flower to the female. Then if everything goes right that flower is fertilized and will develop into a fruit. So that big, luscious red apple you have in the fruit bowl on your table started out as a little apple blossom and then the ovary at the base of the flower swelled and you're eating that.

TED SIMONS: Has our appreciation for flowers changed over time?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: It's kind of -- ebbed. I think we're undergoing a renaissance right now where people are buying exotic blooms and you cannot just go for a hike and appreciate wildflowers but you can go to a florist's shop or boutique and find things that were simply not available even a few decades ago.

TED SIMONS: As far as the economic impact, we're talking a global industry.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: many billions of dollars.

TED SIMONS: Is that going to change over time do you think?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: It's growing by about 6% a year. Right now it's about 15 billion stems for the U.S., 4 billion -- that equates to about -- we purchase about 10 million flowers every day. On a global scale, we're about number 40. Actually Switzerland is the number one country in the world for per capita expenditure on flowers. We got a ways to go.

TED SIMONS: Interesting. This may sound like a dumb question. Flowers make us happy. They lift our spirits. Why?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: psychologists are still exploring it. There's a scientist at Rutgers, Jeanette Haviland Jones, who has done some interesting things. She's found even at very low concentrations in the air, flowers make us think more joyful thoughts. If you give someone a flower, the first thing they do is literally whether it has a scent or not bring it up to their face, smell it and they smile. They flash a big, toothy grin that's a genuine smile. We're also finding that flowers might improve our long term memory.

TED SIMONS: Interesting.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: But they do have -- not just evoking pleasure but imparting true healthful benefits.

TED SIMONS: With that, last question, what do you want people to take from this book?

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: I would like them to come away with an even greater appreciation for flowers. Maybe to use them a little more, to give them a little more freely. Maybe to go home and plant a flower garden. Or appreciate our incredible Arizona wildflowers.

TED SIMONS: No kidding. It's a great book. Congratulations on the book. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: Thank you. It's been great.

University of Arizona biology professor Stephen Buchmann has written a new book on the cultural history of the world’s flowers, exploring and explaining their beauty, sexuality, ecology, mythology, lore, and economics, all illustrated with stunning photography. Buchmann will discuss his new book, “The Reasons for Flowers.

Sponsor message:

In this segment:

Stephen Buchmann : University of Arizona Biology Professor

Sponsor message:

Animals with Cameras: A Nature Miniseries "Oceans"

Caribbean Reef Shark fitted with Sharkcam, a hydrodynamic camera.

Wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan and a team of pioneering animal scientists join forces to explore stories of animal lives “told” by the animals themselves. In episode one, “Oceans”, witness a fascinating underwater world out of reach to regular camera crews.

American Masters "Ailey"

Alvin Ailey on stage

American Masters: Ailey is a portrait of the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), a trailblazing pioneer who founded his influential studio Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 at age 27.

NOVA “Butterfly Blueprints”

A blue and green butterfly with spread wings.

Investigate the hidden scientific secrets of butterflies that reveal them as smarter and more resilient than we ever imagined.