“Flowers are the beautiful hieroglyphics of nature with which she indicates how much she loves us.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Let in the light.
Deep in a wooded glade on the northern fringes of Cardiff, bright sunlight filters down through an unfolding verdant canopy to an array of snow-white starlets gleaming along the woodland floor.
The wood anemones have bloomed and this makes me very happy. I must be honest with you, there were moments during cancer treatment when I considered never seeing Spring 2019. Today, these ‘wind flowers’ shimmer to a breeze in waves, whilst little clouds cast shadow moments and honey bees and bee flies trace their invisible paths from one flower to another.
Spring, 1832. Weimar, Germany, and the eighteenth-century polymath and public figure, Goethe, uttered his last words to an assistant ~ open another shutter and let in “more light.” Fewer people in this world have illuminated the shadows as Goethe. His poetry, science and philosophical incantations were made manifest by his life. His was a deep ethic of observation.
Today, I absolve myself from the worry of cancer returning and immerse myself in deep observation. I put on my glasses and focus the camera on zoom to a single, milk-white bloom. Anemone nemorosa. It’s a meditation and I feel alive.
Flowering and Pollination
The evolution of the process of flowering, vernalization, is a ‘Great Turning Point’ in the story of life on Earth. Before then, though already evolved in mycorrhizal relationships with fungi, plants like ferns, cycads and conifers (gymnosperms), dominated the land. Once flowering plants made the homologous break in evolution, they became, and continue to be, distinct in the vegetative world by their vast adaptations.
With more than 300,000 species, including many trees, they are now the most widespread, diverse, and successful plants. Flowers are amplifiers in the flow of all life, key in behavioural, allelochemical, anatomical, developmental, metabolic and genetic relationships. They give life to so many.
The botanical name for all flowers is Angiospermae; vascular seed producers with ovules or eggs that, when fertilized, develop into seeds containing starchy endosperm inside enclosed hollow ovaries. As the petals wither, energy diverts to the ovaries to develop into a protective fruit or nut, sometimes nutritious and delicious, and so cleverly adapted for effective seed dispersal. Flowering itself, seems almost a miraculous process, triggered by bio-chemical signalling to ‘flowering locus cells’ in the tips of shoots in response to stimuli such as seasonal changes in daylight hours and temperature.
How did these compelling beings emerge?
Among his many devotions, long before Wallace and Darwin, Goethe devised a ‘foliar theory’ on the apparition of complex flowers. Sir Richard Owen, the British vertebrate anatomist, is credited with first defining the word “homology” in 1843, though Goethe had already articulated a homological approach some 50 years or so earlier. He claimed constituent parts of a flower are structurally modified leaves, specialized over time for reproduction or protection ~ shape-shifting of leaf organs in plants from cotyledons, to photosynthetic leaves, to the petals of a flower. He wrote:
“The ever-changing display of plant forms, which I have followed for so many years, awakens increasingly within me the notion: The plant forms which surround us were not all created at some given point in time and then locked into the given form, they have been given… a felicitous mobility and plasticity that allows them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places.” 1790, “Metamorphosis of Plants,” “Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären”.
This theory, along with more developed ideas of adaptation, has since been proven to be true and is known as the ABC molecular model of floral development. Goethe was way ahead of his time.
The question remained whether these events happened suddenly like mutant shocks from one generation to another (known as saltation), or via tiny little increments. It was not until later that evolutionary natural selection was proposed by Darwin and the “slow accumulation of small steps in successive favourable variations” theory was accepted.
Wood anemones have two methods of passing their genes along. They vernalize single blooms on short stems just above the foliage. The flowers are around 2cm in diameter, with six or seven (and on rare occasions eight to ten) tepals or petal-like segments with a central pistil containing the ovary, surrounded by stamens with anthers on top producing pollen or male sperm.
Some flowers, like the wood anemone, are monoecious, having both male and female flowers on a single specimen. Others are dioecious, producing male and female flowers on separate specimens. In both cases, pollen has to reach the ovum for fertilization, and flowering plants incrementally evolved to attract an array of fellow beings to help them. These are named pollination syndromes, and range between gifts of sweet nectar, tantalising scents and scintillating colour schemes to induce euphoria. Other syndromes include offering warmth in an otherwise temperate wind, or cool, dry shade in the saturated tropical heat.
Imagine a flowering plant, a symling, enduring over millions of years, an animation of its morphing form in a whirl of climates, substrates, ecological dependents like pollinators and microbes as bionts. It exists there as a breathing receptacle of the floloca, below and above ground. It inhales the complexity of sunlight, air, water, minerals and microbes, and exhales by shape-shifting, extending and retreating organs, bending to light, with the wind, and summoning its pollinators. We know that this flower signals and responds to stimuli across a myriad of its re-generations.
Since flowering plants multiply relatively quickly, adapting to pollinators can happen through just a few generations. We also know that symbiosis is a major generator of diversity. The malleability of form through selection and through lifetimes means bumblebees’ long tongues can make a flower deeper and a deeper flower can make a bumblebee’s tongue longer. It can also mean flowers that are visited almost exclusively by hummingbirds are actually designed not to lure birds, but to deter bumblebees and their wasteful visits. Several species of flower can attract the same long-tongued bees or the same hummingbirds, and adapt similar forms but completely independently from each other. This is called convergent evolution and has meant some flowers judged relative to form have not been classified correctly.
Genetic studies have taken Goethe’s important work to the next level. Clades give way to complex bunches, as bifurcation is not the only direction of evolution. Think more of trees’ inosculated roots than their branches. We are seeing this with new archaeogenetic discoveries in homo-evolution and the blending of species extinct and their traces in our own cells.
The Flowering Mind
More; trees, when given free rein from our interference, organise into chosen groups with symbiotic advantages, largely to prevent windthrow during storms. They commune between themselves and make choices. Trees, including some of our biggest angiosperms, succeed in patterns where branch elasticity diversity and crown shyness allow for the best support for one another during life-threatening storms. “Into my arms may you fall!” We also know, of course, the stories beneath the ground, in the sharing, telling and loving of the wood-wide-web. It now appears that if wildflowers are left to their own devices, they organise through time and space, generation by generation, in unified assemblages of colour and scent (Kantsa, et al). They signal across species in response to the stimuli of pollinators and pollination. Angiosperm trees, with little doubt, will also be doing something similar. It is fluministic, a deep interconnection that is a powerful form of love. Angiosperms are conscious, communal beings. They group-think and they do it down through generations.
We may be merely heterotrophs, consumers, along with a vast array of other beings, reliant on the existence of autotrophs, the energy producers, but we do have a role to play. Flowers are autotrophs, and we have been particularly attracted to grasses (rice, oats, wheat and barley). Fruits and vegetables are flowering plants, and botanical nuts are too. They are the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that generate more life, but impressions flow back and forth between producers and consumers in constant flow. We’ve cultivated and hybridized angiosperms too, and taken them with us on great migratory voyages. Lighter seeds are carried further by other creatures, including ourselves, via fruit and nut ingestion and defecation, Perhaps, we humans are fully paid-up members of this ancient, verdant group-think club.
Seeds are also dispersed ballistically (like Himalayan Balsam), or in the wind and rain, and no doubt each species has developed dispersal processes to suit its’ original floloca. Invasives may be a problem in the shorter term, but there will be new pollination syndromes and dispersal processes emerging in novel flolocas. Who are we to judge? It’s vital that we think differently from this point forward. We can be consciously competent in playing our part.
As fluminists, we can be more caring in what we move about from place to place, but pro-active in the proliferation of diversity and abundance. We could widen our selection of angiosperms in our diets, and ensure interconnected species have the best chance of surviving our gargantuan mistakes to date. Far from humans being the manipulators at large, trashing the planet with invasive vegetation, we may be one of the most effective dispersal vectors in a rapidly changing biosphere.
In the case of the humble wood anemone, its cells contain ranunculol, which like all members of the buttercup family, is toxic to all vertebrates. We can only hazard a guess as to why the toxins developed at some point in the past ~ to deter grazers, either vertebrate or invertebrate. As the fruit containing seeds can’t easily be eaten, they have adapted a second method of spread via subterranean rhizomes, a process that helps guarantee genetic longevity if the flowers are trampled or wither too quickly. They spread their extending shoots through the soils with bacterial and mycelial symbiotic communities at the rate of about 6ft every 100 years.
Deep in Westhope Hill Woods, my childhood wonderland, there’s a sizeable carpet of them of around 600 x 300ft. Remarkably, this would date the first seed to arrive at around the end of the last Ice Age. Imagine witnessing the first quivering petals growing among successional birch woodlands soon after the retreat of the glaciers; below, a tumble of moraines, where there are now roads full of cars and fields full of cider apples. There’s a way of this world, which matters and needs to be acknowledged.
Charles Darwin, also towards the end of his life, was impatient to see certain key questions of plant evolution resolved. In a letter to Joseph Hooker, he described the relatively late and apparently sudden appearance of flowering plants and a seemingly immediate explosion of variation in the Cretaceous period as ‘an abominable mystery.’ He commented that he would like ‘to see this whole problem solved.’
On this question, the light eventually came in last year. Quite some distance away from either Goethe or Darwin, a group of scientists led by Professor Qiang Fu of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology extracted 34 rock slabs from the South Xiangshan Formation. Etched into those slabs were 198 individual fossilized flower forms, some in bits, others intact, resembling for all the world like tiny cherry blossom.
Nanjinganthus dendrostyla, carbon-dated to around 174 million years old, makes them about 50 million older than any other fossil flower discovered to date and… Jurassic! It’s incredible to imagine they may have been brushed off by the passing foot of a diplodocus or the whip of a therapod tail, only to wash away in a stream and eventually trap themselves in layers of fine sediment.
The sheer number of specimens found allowed researchers to dissect and study with microscope technology, creating a portfolio of high-resolution photographs from all angles. From examination and with much intense and hyper-critical peer review, the work was eventually published only last December.
In detail, the key feature of an angiosperm is ‘angio-ovuly’ — the presence of fully enclosed ovules or eggs, the precursors of seeds before pollination. Nanjinganthus had a cup-form receptacle and ovarian roof that together enclosed the ovules/seeds. This was crucial to class it as ‘angiosperm.’ But was it an ancient ancestor of all the flowering plants ~ monophyletic, meaning they all descended from one common ancestor ~ or an evolutionary dead-end ~ polyphyletic, meaning from a variety of ancestral groups caused, perhaps, by pollination syndrome?
There have been much poorer specimens found of potential angiosperms from the Middle-Late Jurassic epochs in northeastern China, which peer review has not yet supported. Nonetheless, there are structural features of Nanjinganthus that distinguish it from these others, suggesting it was a unique genus of angiosperms that died out.
The Nanjing team want to understand whether Nanjinganthus represents an evolutionary dead-end and has little to do with many later species. It is possible, however, for such uniqueness to survive. One such flower is Amborella trichopoda, a basal angiosperm with no close relatives, and survives within the vegetative refugia of the Pacific islands of New Caledonia. Its existence goes some way to show more of the complexity of evolution.
Nonetheless, the Chinese hypothesis stands ~ Nanjinganthus are the remnants of the most ancient flower found to date, thus solving Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery,’ that so many different flowers having evolved by the Cretaceous period.
What does a 50 million year difference mean? Molecular clocks have indicated that angiosperms must have evolved much earlier. Until now, there has been no persuading fossil-based evidence to prove that angiosperms existed further back in time, and this discovery goes some way to proving and calibrating that theory. These tiny flower forms must have been a rarity amongst the cycads and ginkgoes. Nanjinganthus also has a variety of ‘unexpected’ characteristics, which could be related to the emergence of pollination syndrome and rapid speciation.
Najinganthus had female reproductive structures that are not joined together, no ovarian roof and no obvious style, as well as the association of cup-shaped receptacles with more recently evolved species. The inconsistency between theory and this new fossil record calls into question the way we understand early angiosperm evolution. Nanjinganthus offers multiple explanations. It could be some flowers that bloomed earlier than Nanjinganthus may have given rise to two groups, one resembling Nanjinganthus and the other closer to our previous conception of the first angiosperms. It may also be that different structures reflect multiple origins of the flower. In general, these may suggest that examining species alive today only provides limited insights into early evolution and ancestral structures.
“The recognition that extinctions happen is paleontology’s great contribution to human thought” Roy Plotnik 2018
The work of paleobotanists is critical when it comes to understanding climate change and its evolutionary effects. We are seeing that evolution is more inosculation than branching, diversity dynamic and sometimes unstable. More importantly, I contend, it offers insight into the magnitude of losses to bear as a consequence of geologically abrupt events such as the Anthropocene. It gives us a fair understanding of how long these things take to diversify again and, indeed, the boom of speciation to come, which may or may not include the human race. It guides us in our responsibilities and gives us perspective on our short geological lives; that we are so young and flowers are so well adapted and adaptive.
We’ve much to learn from flowers, and realising this gives us a deeper understanding of all other evolved life and the beauty in relationships. There are endogenous cues to evolution, and it is not simply the random genetic mutations which survive. There is mindfulness, this flowering mind, a complex conscious shaping from inside and out, a reflexive thing and with more intent than one might otherwise imagine. We may even be a conscious part of it.
Rudolph Steiner, Goethe’s student, wrote in The Fundamental Social Law , of the well-being of a community of people working together is greater the less the individual claims the proceeds of his work for himself, i.e. the more of these proceeds he makes over to his fellow-workers, the more his own needs are satisfied, not out of his own work but out of the work done by others.
“The healthy social life is found
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community finds its reflection,
And when in the community
The virtue of each one is living.”
And so it seems for angiosperms. The healing capacity for community far exceeds the injuries of competition. We are not so different after all.
Nanjinganthus sends exanimate signals through time ~ there are moral implications, again, more than one might imagine. The early flowers may well have struggled in isolation, often dying out, then appearing again. It may not have been until flowers existed in conscious communities that longevity and success eventually came, leading to the diversity of life we see today. We must surely be careful that those communities are respected. That the flowers have the resilience to survive despite our hubris. The biosphere has seen major extinctions before, but this is the first where the causal factor ~ Homo sapien ~ has a choice not to proceed. We must choose life.
Humans have hybridized flowers to a huge degree for our own aesthetic and sensory pleasure. Humans have also selected fewer and fewer species for food and medicine (trees, shrubs and herbs). Commercialization and industrialization mean fewer again, especially if you count the evils of patenting genetically engineered crops; and the overbearing power this has over people and wildlife. Associated microbiomes, which have improved their chances of success, are lost.
We have no idea of the speed or extent of the harm this may do to us and all other life. We’ve processed food on top, narrowing our own genetic chances of adaptation in any kind of catastrophic loss of flowers. The lack of diversity in monoculture leaves all in a vulnerable state ~ the autotrophs and heterotrophs, including us. Our ‘great’ minds have failed to plan for any of this, even with our basic understanding of pollination.
Even in our desperate attempts to re-instate wildflowers distributed commercially in gardens mean only a few species and genetic strains are spread widely, and we then offer them little opportunity of organising themselves into resilient communities, as they have evolved.
So many living beings are utterly reliant on angiosperms, either directly, or by the consumption of others who eat them, their seeds and fruits. Flowers, we perceive, are also intensely beautiful, symbolised and celebrated in gardens worldwide, art and diverse cultural life. Farming/gardening may well be a cul de sac for some angiosperms in terms of evolutionary complexity and flow.
Angiosperms may need freedom again to choose, in order to evolve and survive the Anthropocene. Protected lands need to include areas where the wild ancestors of crops still cling on. Look to protecting them in their original flolocas, like the apples of Western China, the maize of Mexico and wild rice of North America, and we can also deeply observe their communities in true Geothian style.
What’s going to happen to the evolutionary flow of flowers without bumblebees, or other pollinators that we have destroyed by pesticides, ousted by development and injured by rising temperatures and climatic volatility? Evolutionary scientists can only hazard a guess. I have called this effect hubrigenesis. If we wipe out the bees, perhaps flies will take over. If flies dominate pollination, then expect flowers to ‘radiate’ unpleasant odours and green colours in order to attract them.
There are instruction videos on Youtube on how to ‘hand’ pollinate flowers by using cotton swabs and small paintbrushes. What is the pollination syndrome of a paintbrush? If paintbrushes become a flower’s instrument for survival, what happens when there are no humans to operate them? Some companies are developing tiny robotic pollinators. I’m calling it out.
Our responsibility towards protecting the outcome of millions of years of angiosperm evolution is at a scale of the changes in our atmosphere. And then there are the soils, the nitrogen and water cycles. We too are evolutionarily reflexive, but we are on our own as a human species. All other Homo beings have died out, even if they have left a little DNA in ours. We are vulnerable, despite seven billion of us. Our rates of reproduction are so much less abundant to allow radiation of adaptation and eventually speciation, like the angiosperms.
Every time our cultures choose a route, we instigate selection and determining consequences, some of which we simply have no idea. The industrialisation of food production has been a hammer blow to abundance and symbiotic diversity. Some cultural responses will be good such as permaculture, but a monoculture-pesticide-GM riddled version, patented and exported by corporates, is deeply problematic in breaking flows of sustained life.
We need to look again at the protection of food crops in the wild, diversifying our diet, eating less meat and including a broader variety of native vegetative species; of eventually, perhaps given catastrophic losses to Earth Crises, from droughts and floods to conflicts and migration, a return to a foraging lifestyle (nature first).
We may need to look at re-seeding species to the north and south and upwards through altitude due to climate change and the shifting of biome frontiers. At the very least, we must allow other species the capability to move and re-seed; part of the role of the fluminist in action.
With a culture of flower as a thing of beauty in our everyday lives, it is easy to underestimate their absolute power in the current flow of all living beings. From Najinganthus to the wood anemone to the latest hybrid oat. Now is the time to recognise it, to let in the light.
Meanwhile, we convene at the flower and its evolution, past, present and future. Paleobotanists, phylogeneticists, and morphologists ~ farmers, gardeners and artists ~ flowers and their adaptations also bring people together. The process is of breathing life into relationships. From Goethe to Steiner to Darwin to Qiang Fu to me here with the wood anemones today; a bounty of millions of years of reflexive, shape-shifting, symbiotic evolution. The flowering mind – it’s all around us. We just need to feel it.