Plantastic Mysteries: How Flowering Plants Changed the World

Mar 25, 2014


Photo by Shotaku

Continuing with the spring floral vibes, I dug up some fun facts about flowers on National Geographic. We can all agree that flowers are beautiful and  smell delightful, too (well, most of them anyway). But if it weren’t for flowers, we wouldn’t exist. “As a food source flowering plants provide us and the rest of the animal world with the nourishment that is fundamental to our existence. Botanists call flowering plants angiosperms, from the Greek words for “vessel” and “seed.” Today flowering plant species outnumber by twenty to one those of ferns and cone-bearing trees, or conifers, which had thrived for 200 million years before the first bloom appeared.

“Before flowering plants appeared,” says Dale Russell, a paleontologist with North Carolina State University and the State Museum of Natural Sciences, “the world was like a Japanese garden: peaceful, somber, green; inhabited by fish, turtles, and dragonflies. After flowering plants, the world became like an English garden, full of bright color and variety, visited by butterflies and honeybees. Flowers of all shapes and colors bloomed among the greenery.”

Insects doubtless began visiting and pollinating angiosperms as soon as the new plants appeared on Earth some 130 million years ago. But it would be another 30 or 40 million years before flowering plants grabbed the attention of insect pollinators by flaunting flashy petals. Sometime between 70 and 100 million years ago the number of flowering plant species on Earth exploded, an event botanists refer to as the “great radiation.” The spark that ignited that explosion, said Friis, was the petal.

Eventually humans evolved, and the two kingdoms made another handshake. Through agriculture angiosperms met our need for sustenance. We in turn have taken certain species like corn and rice and given them unprecedented success, cultivating them in vast fields, pollinating them deliberately, consuming them with gusto. Virtually every nonmeat food we eat starts as a flowering plant, while the meats, milk, and eggs we consume come from livestock fattened on grains—flowering plants. Even the cotton we wear is an angiosperm.”

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