What is a Flower

Are flowers merely dying leaves?

Well, the first time I ever heard about it was when my earliest botany teacher made that statement, and I could hardly believe it. But we had learned from experience that whenever he said a thing was so, it was so, no matter how strange it might sound at the time. And that's how it turned out with regard to the flowers. Calling them "dying leaves" was one of his little tricks of speech; ways of putting things to make them more interesting.

You'll notice that while twigs have leaves growing along their entire length, there are flowers only on the ends, or on special stalks growing out from the axils of the leaves or branches. The result is that the leaves, because there are so many more of them and they help themselves to the sap as it passes along. absorb most of it, and the flowers get only what sap is left.

Now, this would be hard lines for you if you were a regular leaf and had to do a good day's work every day, but being the petal of a flower whose chief business it is to dress up for parties and act on the reception committee, it's different.


Really, the whole thing works out beautifully. Just because the petals live on short rations, the green leaves and the rest of the tree get all the more, and the petals get all they need to make them bring out those lovely colors; for their coloring is due to the same thing that brings out the coloring in the leaves in autumn, a light diet. In the case of the autumn leaves this comes with the "corking up" of the sap-supply by the mother-tree, as explained in the September chapter, but in the petals it is due to their situation at the end of the line of sap traffic, and the fact that they have very delicate complexions.

William Morris Hunt used to caution his art students against eating too much. "You can't paint well on a heavy dinner of pork and beans," said he. This seems equally true of the "painting" done by the dainty petals, doesn't it?


"But," you say, "I don't see how a light diet could put color in one's cheeks--a flower petal's or anybody's."

Why, don't you remember, we learned in September that the colors of the autumn leaves were already in the green leaves and it was the cutting off of the sap-supply that caused these colors to show themselves? Well, it's the same way with the petals. We also saw that the brightness of the colors depended on the thinness and smoothness of the leaf. In the petal you have much the same condition as in the ordinary leaf, but the petal, being so much thinner and more delicate, the colors show brighter and in greater variety.


The main object of the coloring of the flowers is to attract the attention of the bees and butterflies, who are thereby led to visit them and carry the pollen between flower and flower. And some of the little markings on the flowers of the Catalpa, you'll notice, point right toward where the nectar is kept. And this is true of many other flowers. One theory about such markings is that they are like signs which to the flower's visitors read:

"This way to the candy-shop!"

This may be true, for Mother Nature undoubtedly has a fine head for business. On the other hand, however, she evidently delights in pretty things, for their own sake, just as you and I do. Not all the markings on the flowers point toward the nectar, by any means, but all are shaped into a great variety of artistic designs. Now designs in advertising, which are so necessary in interesting human beings in what you have to sell, are of no value whatever in getting the trade of the bees and other desirable customers of the flowers. Mere shapeless splashes of color would answer the purpose equally well. Experiments with bees have proven this.

And we find still stronger evidence that Nature delights in beauty for beauty's sake in such delicate designs as those on petals which can be seen only with a microscope. Whoever heard of a bee carrying a microscope?

But, anyhow, after a "dressed-up" flower has been fertilized by the bee or the butterfly, or whatever flying insect may be the bearer of the pollen, the petals wither and fall. They have served that part of their purpose. The party is over!


Often the petals fall before withering sets in. In that case something happens that still further reminds us that petals are dying leaves. Little wedges are formed which cut them off from the rest of the flower. Exactly the kind of thing that happens, you remember, to the autumn leaves! It is as if some invisible gardener were in charge of the flower-bearing plant and its children. The petals, having served their purpose, are promptly removed so that they will no longer draw on the plant's food-supply. Moreover, by falling, they help feed either the parent plant or some other, by enriching the soil, just as leaves do. The petals of a single flower don't enrich the soil very much, to be sure. Neither does a single leaf. But thousands and millions and trillions of leaves do. So with the petals. Only by thinking in that way of such little things going on all around us can we begin to comprehend the wonderful system of Nature. Among other things she seems to have known the great principles of modern business long before modern business ever appeared on the scene. One of these principles is that "it is the small economies that make the large dividends." And we have the same thing in another form in the good old maxim--isn't it one of Franklin's?--"save the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves."


We all know that picture in our school histories showing Columbus planting his banner on landing in the new world. It was something the same way, it seems, with the plants and their flowers. Plant life, like animal life, originated in the water. The early water-plants, few in species and simple in form as they were, nevertheless became the ancestors of the great varieties of grasses, herbs, and trees that now grow on land; and, with the landing, came the flowers, the unfurling of the bright banners.


Flowers are such delicate things that the records of the rocks with regard to their origin is much more scanty than in the case of animal life. But, among other things, they show the interesting fact that, as among human beings, the dresses of flowers were much plainer in pioneer days. The flowers without perfume or color, like those of the Pines, preceded the flowers with the pretty colors and the perfume.

And thereby hangs a tale as strange as any fairy-story, the story of how the flowers entertain the bees and others in return for the use of their flying-machines in going and coming between one pollen-party and another, as described in the next section. With the pretty dress fabrics came in, not only a wide variety of color patterns, but more styles than can be seen at a fancy-dress ball. Nowadays the great majority of the members of the plant world, from the little wood-violets up to the great Tulip Tree, wear pretty dresses. Although most forest-trees get along without the help of the bees and their associates, and therefore go to no expense in the matter of coloring or perfume for their flowers, yet it is thought that perhaps the first step in the process of making colored flowers was taken by the trees; was the production of the red coloring matter we have already spoken of by some members of the Pine family. You can see a suggestion of this in the brilliant red female cones of the Fir and the Larch known as "Larch roses."

Return to A Year in the Wonderland of Trees