Philosophical and religious considerations aside, the primary “purpose” of all organisms, whether they are plants, animals, fungi, bacteria or viruses, is to grow and reproduce. Success or failure is determined by the number of viable descendants that remain to carry on the lineage when the parent dies. The bottom line is progeny.
Spring is the season for this renewal. We are now immersed in the energy of successfully reproducing beings. Mother gray whales and calves move up the coast, new‑born foals and fawns cavort in pastures, English sparrow babies beg beetles from every cornice, tree frogs chorus in cattle ponds and wildflowers illuminate the entire scene.
Floristically speaking it has been a disappointing year in most of California with notable exceptions. I had the good fortune to spend a month in Death Valley and the Mojave this spring. It was the best floral display in 14 years. The desert floor was ablaze. Under the gray‑green shrubs was a frenzy of activity; as far as the eye could see the flowers stretched.
The Sierran foothills, which are usually glowing with the orange and blue of poppies and lupines in April, were depressing shades of withered brown. Fortunately for west Marin the coastal areas are another delightful exception. Run, don’t walk, to Chimney Rock, Abbotts Lagoon, Palomarin, and/or Muir Beach. There are still many wildflowers to see: Checkerblooms, Bog Lupines, Pussy Ears, Douglas Iris, Blue‑eyed Grass, Cream Cups, Tidy Tips, Giant Chickweed, Meadowfoam, Indian Paintbrush, Red Maids, Wild Flax, Linanthus, Mustard, Seaside Daisies, Bush Lupines, Buttercups, Phacelia, Sheep Sorrel, Yarrow, and many others.
Flowers……we give them to each other during times of overwhelming grief or intense happiness. At funerals they remind us of the joy and power of the living, at weddings we use them to celebrate the joining of two humans, and at the birth of a child flowers symbolize hope and new life.
This universal sense of “flower power” (forgive me) is understandable. Part of a flower’s beauty lies in the fact that it is most glorious right before death. There is a sense of the intransigence of life in a flower. It yells out to us, “BE HERE NOW! Behold, admire and smell me. Tomorrow is too late, I will be gone, faded and dying.” So will we.
Yet flowers do not exist solely to delight our senses or increase our existential awareness; their primary function is to aid in the procreation of the plant.
The world was not always such a bright place. Three hundred million years ago the gymnosperms (ginkgos, cycads, redwoods, pines and their long‑extinct relatives) were the dominant plant form accompanied by mosses, ferns and liverworts. The landscape was full of various shades of green but missing were the brilliant yellows, blues, violets, reds and oranges of the flowering plants. Sure there were interesting dinosaurs and giant insects but something was definitely lacking.
Beginning about 100 million years ago the flowering plants (angiosperms in the official nomenclature) burst upon the scene. Many evolved mechanisms (bright petals, scent‑producing cells, nectar glands, protein‑rich pollen grains) to entice animals to act as pollen vectors. The animals in turn specialized in feeding on flowers. Bees, flies, moths, wasps, butterflies, hummingbirds and even bats changed with the evolving flower structures. Many plants and animals now depend on one another for survival. This evolutionary dance has resulted in an explosion of color and smell in our world.
Gymnosperms, especially conifers, are still common and very successful but have been dominated by the angiosperms which have spread to every conceivable corner of the earth. Flowering plants now make up over 90% of the species. If success is measured by offspring then we are truly living in the Age of Dandelions.