How flowers changed the world a new book by Field Museum scientist

Compact book targets general audience just in time for spring

CHICAGO--Stop. Smell the roses.

And the daisies, petunias and orchids.

Also, stop to consider sugar, potatoes and wheat; cotton, corn and coffee.

All of these are flowering plants, which completely transformed the world by providing rich biological diversity, propelling primate evolution, spurring evolution, allowing for agriculture, and ushering in civilization not to mention beautifying the world. Flowers: How They Changed the World, a new book for a general audience, describes the fascinating role flowering plants have played in the story of life on Earth. It is written by popular author William C. Burger, PhD, Curator Emeritus of Botany at Chicago's Field Museum. He also wrote the highly acclaimed Perfect Planet, Clever Species.

Flowers (210 pages with drawings and color illustrations) is available from Prometheus Books starting this spring just in time for the blooming of flowering plants, grasses and trees.

"Burger takes us on a wide-ranging romp through the world of flowers from their most intimate secrets to their global significance," says Sir Peter Crane, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, in London. "This is a wonderful book for any naturalist or gardener who wants not only to see but also to understand." There were no flowers of any kind on Earth until about 100 million years ago during the late Jurassic, which was the middle of the Dinosaur Age. It's hard to imagine what such a flowerless world would have been like. Not only was it drab, but food for birds and mammals and other living creatures would have been far more difficult to find and far less nutritious.

But flowers, in all there myriad variations, did not evolve for our eating or viewing pleasure. They evolved as they did for survival. Their bright colors, attractive fragrances, and alluring shapes were designed to induce insects and other animals to do their bidding: help them pollinate and assure their continued existence.

"Flowers are the supreme example of nature's reproductive exuberance, ensuring the persistence of life against an onslaught of destructive forces, constantly evolving pathogens, and unpredictable environmental changes," Dr. Burger says. Even more important, he adds, flowers are the fundamental energy resource for most of life on Earth. "Since they energize themselves by capturing the energy of sunlight, flowers provide a vital link in the chain of life. Even today in our complex technological world, it is the flowering plants that provide us, directly or indirectly, with nearly all the energy that sustains life."

Today there are 260,000 unique species of flowering plants known to science, with more being discovered almost every day. Given a total of about 300,000 species of land plants, the vast majority of land plants produce flowers.

"Without flowers, we humans simply wouldn't be here, whether as primates, two-legged omnivores, or grand civilizations!" Dr. Burger says.

This easy-to-understand book discusses many aspects of flowers including the evolution of flowers and how flowers created a world richer than any that had come before in the 4 billion year history of the Earth. There's a lot of discussion about sex since flowers are the reproductive organs of flowering plants.

"It is truly botany made interesting and accessible," says David Lentz, vice president of the Chicago Botanic Garden. "Anyone who ever thought they would like to learn more about flowers and their mysterious habits should read this wonderful book."

Chapter titles:
1. What, exactly, is a flower?
2. What are flowers for?
3. Flowers and their friends.
4. Flowers and their enemies
5. How are the flowering plants distinguished?
6. What makes the flowering plants so special?
7. Primates, people and the flowering plants.
8. How flowers changed the world.


Digital images available:
Michigan lily
This flower's rich colors, lush pedals and large stamen and stigma are designed to attract attention, and it succeeds wonderfully. Photo by William C. Burger; Courtesy of The Field Museum

Wild geranium
Flowers have evolved in ways that lure insects and some would say humans to do their bidding. Here a beetle visits a wild geranium seeking food.
Photo by William C. Burger; Courtesy of The Field Museum

Meadow rose
Hoverfly on a meadow rose. "For most flowers, their pigments, aromas and symmetry have a single purpose: advertising," says author William C. Burger, PhD.
Photo by William C. Burger; Courtesy of The Field Museum

Cymbidium orchid. Note that the lower lip constitutes a landing field for insects.
Photo by William C. Burger; Courtesy of The Field Museum

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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