A blooming renaissance

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The Rose's Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers

Island Press: 1999. 267 pp. $24.95
F is for flower: male and female squash blossoms grow on the same vine.

Snottygobble may sound like an expletive, but it's not. It's actually a genus of plant (Persoonia spp.) in Australia. It has small fruit with gelatinous greenish flesh relished by children who chew it and try to out-disgust each other by slobbering the resultant goo. It is also called the ‘honeypot flower’ for its chalice-like blooms which have copious nectar. In Peter Bernhardt's eloquent, accurate and literary book, floral biology — or anthecology — is explained to inform and entertain everyone, from curious scientists to amateur natural historians. Botanical science is laced with much zoology. The book describes the fascinating ways in which insects exploit flowers for nectar and may or may not service plants by pollination. The tiny, pollen-pilfering, FuManchu bee (Leioproctus filamentosa; Colletidae) has long, slender palpi resembling the villain's moustache and used to rob the snottygobble of its nectar without the bee's affecting pollination. The true pollinators are larger Leioproctus spp. and other bees.

Botany and floral biology are exciting subjects. That excitement is manifest in the rebirth of anthecology in the past 25 years. As it excited Christian Konrad Sprengel 206 years ago to question the functional morphology of flowers, and the Victorian-era naturalists of Europe and America when the theory of evolution was young, anthecology is again front and centre in many studies in evolutionary ecology, animal and plant reproductive biology, physiology and behaviour, biogeography, biodiversity and conservation.

With provocatively cryptic titles and introductory quotations, the seventeen chapters take readers from the basics of floral form and function, plant sex, through the life and death of flowers, and more plant sex. Bernhardt ranges from common temperate-zone woodland herbs, shrubs and trees to rare and strange inhabitants of tropical forests and deserts.

The colour, shape, size and smell of floral attractants are related, with floral rewards such as nectar, pollen, oils and brood sites, to pollinator behaviour and resource requirements. Pollinator diversity is simply yet extensively explored by Bernhardt, from beetles, butterflies, moths, flies and bees to birds and bats noisily squawking in trees. In a chapter called “F is for Fake (and Flower)”, the elements of deceitful plants that attract pollinators with misleading signals (mimicry of colour and scent, often coupled with absence of rewards such as nectar) are richly described. The aroids and orchids are notorious at duping pollinators, as are the largest of all flowers, Rafflesia, locally known as corpse flowers because of their characteristic smell of rotting meat.

The much understudied, yet ecologically important process of wind pollination is well explained by reference to grasses, trees of temperate countries and hay fever. Next comes more plant sex, but by self-fertilization (‘self-made marriages’), and plant celibacy by seeding without fertilization (‘virgin births’). The final chapter, by cogently discussing recent discoveries in palaeontology, addresses Charles Darwin's “abominable mystery” as to the origin of flowering plants (Angiospermae).

This book introduces basic principals to readers who may know little about the natural history of flowers, while presenting scientists, steeped in anthecology, with fascinating insights, twists and a rare glimpse of the personal curiosity that has motivated Bernhardt to write another book.

I congratulate Bernhardt and his publishers on an excellent book. It would make a splendid gift and is a marvellous read.

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Kevan, P. A blooming renaissance. Nature 402, 460–461 (1999) doi:10.1038/44948

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