If and when when you get a chance to go outside today, notice the flowers. It won’t be hard because they are begging for attention. Flowers are the world’s first form of advertising.
Their evolutionary story is simple. Plants can’t move. Animals can. To get animals to help them reproduce, plants basically invented billboard ads. What were they offering? Energy, in the form of a tiny droplet of sugar. In return, flowering plants got nectar-sipping critters to carry their genetic code — instructions for making more flowers, bundled up in balls of pollen — far and wide.
When humans came along, flowers advertised to us too. They bewitched us with color and fragrance, and we spread them to gardens around the world.
You can tell which flowers are wind-pollinated because they don’t waste any effort trying to look good.
“The wind doesn’t care what flowers look like — insects and birds do,” says Matt Ritter, a botany professor at Cal Poly. As a result these flowers hide in plain sight, which makes seeking them a rewarding treasure hunt. Break out a magnifying glass and search for the green tassels of oaks, the purple poof balls of sycamores, the tiny snowball blooms of pepper trees, and the elegant flowers of a maple, which, close up, look like some strange sea creature. If the branches are too high, you’re sure to find fallen flowers around the trunk.
By the way, it’s not entirely true that plants can’t move — they just move slowly, as far as their roots allow. And there are a few wonderful exceptions to that rule. The pollen of a ginkgo tree, for instance, must transform into a moving creature to complete its journey. After the pollen lands on a female tree it spends months growing thousands of little tails arranged in spirals, which it thrashes to propel itself deep into the ginkgo seed to fertilize it.
As you study these intricate structures, ask yourself: What quirk of evolution favored this particular design? Is it made to take advantage of wind, rain, bats, ants, or bees? And which flowers are directing their charms at you?
And try this: Sniff some flowers to find which you like best. Gather a handful of the best smelling ones and embed them in a bar of virus-destroying soap. You can find several soap-making methods online, but it’s easiest to simply start with glycerine soap and melt it down. Scrounge for soap in the bathroom, or buy unscented bars online. Melt it in the microwave, 15 seconds at a time to prevent burning. Then stir in your petals, pour the whole thing into a mold (a paper milk carton works well), and cool.