Elizabeth Quill in Smithsonian:
What makes us want to grow a lily in a pot? It’s a question at the center of entomologist Stephen Buchmann’s latest book, The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology and How They Change Our Lives. People have been obsessed with flowers since ancient times, Buchmann notes. A painted casket found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb is decorated with a bouquet including cornflowers and lily petals, and Chinese gardeners have grown lotus, peonies, magnolias and tiger lilies since at least 1,000 B.C. Today, certain flowers have enormous cultural value: In Grasse, France, the distilled oils of jasmine plants can fetch $12,000 a pound, Buchmann writes in a chapter about perfume. He also devotes a chapter to flowers in literature. But his specialty is the science—Buchmann’s interest in flowers began during his childhood in California, when he would chase bees through wild meadows, and his research focuses on the weird and wonderful relationships flowers have forged with their animal pollinators. I spoke to Buchmann about why we all love flowers and what mysteries these floral wonders still hold.
What is the most fascinating flower discovery in the past decade?
It has been found that flowers have a negative charge that may influence pollinator visits. Every object that flies through the air, whether it is a baseball, a jumbo jet or a humble bumblebee, acquires a strong positive electric charge. A honeybee might be carrying a charge of several hundred volts. When a positively charged bee lands on a negative flower, pollen grains can actually jump an air gap and attach to the stigma [the part of a flower where pollen germinates]. These passive electrostatic charges aid the natural pollen-holding branched hairs on the bodies of most bees. Bees may even be able to “label” flowers they just visited with these charges and not revisit empty flowers in the future.