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The Rose's Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers by Peter Bernhardt

1999; 267 pp. $24.95, Island Press.

During this century, botany has taken a back seat to other sciences. By the fifties, most students would have agreed that the great discoveries had been made, and that it was an irrelevant subject taught in a dead language. In The Rose's Kiss , Peter Bernhardt observes that most otherwise scientifically literate adults now know less about botany than did typical schoolchildren a hundred years ago. For many of us?particularly gardeners?botany was the arcane business of renaming and reclassifying plants, until the hubbub over genetically engineered crops and Earth's loss of biodiversity put botany in the news.

So it is eye-opening to read Bernhardt describing contemporary discoveries in the sex life of plants. Botanists only recently observed, for instance, that besides the attractions of scent and color, some flowers offer pollinating insects a warm bunk by chemically generating heat. We have been making perfume for more than 5,000 years, but experiments to discover how and where flowers produce their scent only began in the fifties?after the introduction of the electron microscope. Bernhardt is not just a collector of natural curiosities; he is an enthusiastic and entertaining writer who quotes D.H. Lawrence as well as Darwin, and who sees poetry in the natural history of flowers.

"The Asian sacred lotus ( Nelumbo nucifera ) has long been admired for its large pink-and-white flowers, but botanists now know that each flower has its own thermostat. A single lotus bloom can produce and sustain a temperature of more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit even when the air temperature sinks to 50 degrees.

"Half of the heat in a lotus flower is generated by a spongy, cylinder-shaped structure in its center called the receptacle....A lotus "fires up" when it is a mature bud, just before its petals expand. Temperature equilibrium is reached when the rate of heat production in the flower equals the rate of heat loss. For a few days, the flower regulates its temperature as would a small warm-blooded animal such as a hummingbird or shrew. Scientists believe that a floral temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit may make it easier for a cold-blooded insect to activate its flight muscles. This would speed up the rate of cross-pollination, allowing warmed, energetic beetles or bees to hurry from bloom to bloom even when the weather is cool and uninviting.

"Ancient frescoes discovered in Egypt and on the island of Crete suggest that humans have farmed flowers for their fragrance for more than five thousand years. The Madonna lily ( Lilium candidum ) appears to be one of the oldest perfume crops in the Mediterranean region. Some paintings in Egyptian tombs depict ladies of the pharaoh's court wearing unguent cones on their foreheads. Recipes for making these scented cones have been translated from surviving scrolls. In most cases, pounded or chopped petals were mixed with ox fat.

"The perfume industry guards its secrets jealously because they are so lucrative. This makes it harder for science writers to piece together a natural history of flower scents. Scientists do know, however, that fragrant chemicals make up only a fraction of a live flower. Scent compounds make up just 0.075 percent of the weight of a fresh rose".

 

ISBN: 1559635649

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