In his landmark book, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan turned pre-conceived notions about plants and humans inside out and upside down. He chronicled four plants and the human desires they represented: Apple/Sweetness; Tulip/Beauty; Marijuana/Intoxication; Potato/Control.
Pollan posed this question at the beginning of the tulip chapter: …does beauty have a purpose?
Pollan’s facile mind then leads one on a fascinating journey as he presents his case. He reports on the history of tulips, Holland and flowers. He discusses bees and compares tulips to roses and peonies. And he continually returns to a conflict between the Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus: Of course, like all of our (Apollonian) efforts to order and categorize nature, this one goes only so far before the (Dionysian) pull of things as they really are begins to take its inevitable toll.
Let me quote directly from Pollan’s beautiful text…and see if you concur.
On humans, beauty and flowers: The equation of flowers and beauty was apparently made by all the great civilizations of antiquity… the love of flowers is almost universal… Let’s say we are born with such a predisposition—that humans, like bees, are drawn instinctively to flowers.
On the tulip in particular: …cool, scentless, and somewhat aloof… …It is no accident that botanical illustrators and photographers have so often brought their scrupulous eye to bear on this particular flower: it rewards that particular gaze like no other.
On the evolution of flowers: Once upon a time, there were no flowers—two hundred million years ago…There were plants then, of course, ferns and mosses, conifers and cycads, but these plants didn’t form true flowers or fruit…Reptiles ruled…
Flowers changed everything. The angiosperms..., as botanists call the plants that form flowers and then encased seeds… multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of large warm-blooded mammals. Without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule. Without flowers, we would not be.
His conclusion: For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature—that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing…Could that be it—right there, in a flower—the meaning of life?