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An Explosion of Flowers

“Ophelia: There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.

Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. . . .

There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays. You must wear your rue with a difference.

There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.” From Hamlet by William Shakespeare

It’s flower season in California. Thanks to the parade of atmospheric rivers that conga danced (and raved) over us this winter and spring, the seasonal riot of colorful blooms may be more prolific and aromatic than ever. The fragrance of the native lilacs are

bionic compared to our drought years; California poppies are flushing into shameless orange clusters alongside roads and sidewalks. I’ve got big expectations of the lupine that are starting to show their hues of blue and purple as their buds swell. Trillium, checker & calypso lilies are quivering in the underbrush of the woods; fields of golden mustard blossoms frame the breath sucking beauty of plum, apple and cherry trees in bloom. Scrappy wildflowers like the death camas, shooting stars, wild iris dot rocky hillsides. Anticipation is growing for the “super blooms” when fields of wildflowers grow into dense carpets of pastel hues.

Flowers are angiosperms, from a Greek word that means “seed vessels”. Currently, 90% of all living plant species are flowering and they are woven into our human existence. Flowers mark our births, deaths, and many celebrations and rituals in-between. A wedding, piano recital, funeral, sorry I cheated, I had no idea what to bring to the party so here’s some flowers. They’re symbols in literature. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia passes out rosemary of remembering, pensive pansies, fennel that means flattery, foolish columbine, rue the weed of adultery and innocent daisies, along with violets of faithfulness. We project our emotions, design our rituals, see our passions in them. And they are all of those things – seductive, beautiful, noble, sweet, and even deadly. We project our emotions, design our rituals, see our passions in them. And they are all of those things – seductive, beautiful, noble, sweet, and even deadly.

I was recently listening to a program on public radio while driving , and I cannot now find it on the web or I’d link to it. I’m pretty sure it was Radio Lab, and this episode was about women scientists, in particular the poet and astronomer Rebecca Elson who wrote “The Responsibility to Awe”. One of the hosts of the show likened the explosion of flowers on earth to the explosion of galaxies in the universe. I haven’t been able to shake these images, both so stunning by themselves, but kind of mind blowing in tandem. So I started looking into the explosion of flowers on planet earth. This occurred when the dinosaurs disappeared. One theory is that dinosaurs ate so much plant life that flowers didn’t have a chance to bloom.

The first plants on earth were related to mosses, horsetails, and ferns and required water in order to reproduce. These co-existed with dinosaurs in the Triassic Period 252-201 million years ago- dinosaurs first evolved about 225 million years ago. Early trees were conifers, which reproduced by spores rather than seeds and were the dominant foliage on planet earth; dinosaurs grazed on the trees, which provided the roughage these behemoths required. Then 66 million years ago a meteor hit the earth, and the fiery aftermath wiped out a lot of life, including the dinosaurs. Yet from this destruction, a huge diversity of flowers evolved. In an article in Smithsonian, Alex Fox states “After the impact, three-quarters of all plant and animal species on Earth went extinct. But new research suggests that out of the ashes of this destruction, sprang the closed-canopy, flower-packed South American rainforests that now host the greatest diversity of plants and animals on Earth.”

There are all manner of scientific beliefs around the dinosaur-flower theory, or the "Palaeocene megaherbivore gap" that preceded the floral super bloom on earth. Some believe from there’s no correlation between dinosaur extinction and the spread of flowering plants, and others hypothosize that flowering plants may have poisoned dinosaurs and contributed to their extinction. But what is known is that following this gap, flowering plants exploded in shape and smell and form and function, spreading into new regions and habitats, forking off into myriad species, which then co-evolved with a increasing diversity bugs & birds; take monogamous orchids in Vera Cruz, Mexico, so highly structural that they require a Melipona bee to fertilize them. Humans love vanilla, so we’ve planted them in other parts of the earth – Tahiti and Madagascar – and hand pollinate them. Then there’s the promiscuous native bees that roam California that need both pollen and nectar and so can see color five times faster than humans, and can visually map fields of flowers.

Blues, purples are most vivid to them, and orange to a lesser degree – so it’s no surprise our super blooms tend to be the favorite colors of bees. Some flowers, like yucca, attract the yucca moth, which is hunted by birds and bats. But perhaps no creature has been as seduced by flowers as human beings. Take roses - there are 150 genus of roses with thousands of cultivated species. Wealthy orchid collectors sent hunters across the world, there have been theft and skullduggery in the collection of these quivering beauties. Tulipmania is now the term for economic bubbles, as the tulip industry became its own sort of stock market in Holland. As it turns out, we are excellent seed spreaders. Cannabis is a flower that has spread far and wide on this planet – it appears as far back and away as ancient Mesopotamia where cannabis was burned as an offering to the goddess Ishtar, originally the goddess of healing.

What happens if we continue to destroy our home planet and go extinct? Will there eventually be another super bloom like when the dinosaurs died off? And this would lead to an even more magnificent evolution of creatures that play the roles of pollinators, like birds, bees and butterflies and biodiversity on this planet?

It’s a small consolation as we participate in the next great extinction on planet earth, but unfortunately, humans probably won’t be around to witness the next super bloom. That’s the other thought that has stuck with me from that podcast. If asked if the earth had a consciousness, one person speculated that humans were supposed to be it – that’s our role. So what if once the earth heals itself from our rapacious extraction and consumption, and profuse beauty evolves, but without the consciousness to recognize it as the multi-faceted gift that it is? Without people to get so excited about roses and cannabis that they spread them all over the world? Would it be possible for humans to help bring about the next super bloom on planet earth and so get to witness it like we do a magnificent springtime after so much rain? I believe we can.

We think of the environmental movement as just stopping humans from destruction and letting the earth heal. But what if we put our skills and talents to the use of aiding biodiversity on earth by becoming a keystone species? Let’s do that.

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