The Miracle of a Single Flower
Most mornings when I walk around my garden, I agree with Buddha who said, ‘If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly our whole life would change.’ As I wrote this article, I became more convinced of this miracle.
I am a fan of growing flowers, for their beauty, fragrance and butterflies. Flowers play a vital role by helping in the pollination process. Trees rank up there for reasons known to us all: they are the habitat for so many animal and bird species, provide shade, give oxygen and absorb greenhouse gases, and are a barrier against flooding and climate change, to name a few. Next are food supplying plants as they optimize the use of land. Increasingly, homeowners and small farm holders are growing vegetables for their own consumption and even marketing their organic produce to conscientious consumers. Lawns are the villains in the botanical drama, termed as water-guzzling monsters by Zahrah Nasir, the veteran gardening columnist. Grass lawns, the experts say, are green deserts, with limited potential as habitat or food source for insects or birds. Somewhere in the middle of this hierarchy lie flowers.
Much admired for their beauty, popular as additions to indoor décor and bouquets given as presents, the prettiness of flowers seems to blur their status as a serious part of the ecosystem.
But experts know better. Food crops are made possible by pollinators including bees, butterflies and some species of bats. A total of 35 per cent of global food production depends on bees to pollinate crops. These include fruits, vegetables and nuts. Livestock fodder crops like alfalfa also depend on pollination by bees. Pollination makes floral growth possible, which not only provides food but also natural habitats for insects, birds and animals.
And what do these pollinators feed on? This is where flowers come in: these bees, some 20,000 species of them, feed on flowers. If they have good nutrition from their sipping sprees across a flower-filled meadow, we will have good nutrition as well.
The bee population across the world is on the decline for several reasons. The use of pesticides in plants that bees feed on is a major cause. Bees’ viral diseases and pests also lead to Colony Collapse Disorder (CDD), a phenomenon where most worker bees leave the colony. For example, in the USA alone, the bee population has dwindled by one third each year for the last two years. Bee farmers make up for the loss by dividing existing colonies, but this has a cost attached to it.
Ironically, the very agriculture that is so heavily dependent on these pollinators is designed in ways detrimental to them. The trend to cultivate monocultures has a negative impact on biodiversity. For example, if there are fields and fields of wheat or barley growing, the coexistence of a variety of animal and insect life will not be possible. It is now recommended to grow borders of flowers and hedge fronts to turn monocultures into more sustainable and environment friendly permacultures by disrupting ‘food deserts’. This will naturally attract pollinators without necessitating bringing them in boxes to farms in time for pollination. Currently this is the practice in the almond orchards of California. If flowers were to be grown alongside these mega-farms, bee populations would organically flourish. On the other hand, a flowerless landscape leads to a dysfunctional food system.
In short, bees and other pollinators are vital for the ecosystem and food production. Their existence cannot be taken for granted. In fact, we must individually take steps for the collective good of pollinators, by planting more and diverse varieties of flowers. It won’t hurt to do some research on which flowering plants are more pollinator friendly.
Stress and depression are ever on the rise; unknown to us so many in our social circle are on antidepressants. While flowers may not be as potent as Prozac, they certainly help uplift our mood. This has been proven by many researchers and we can notice a similar impact on our own state of feeling as well the moment we transition from a concrete world to a flowery park.
Psychologists have analyzed this phenomenon and confirm that certain brain chemicals are stimulated by flowers. Dopamine, for example, is triggered by the expectation of a reward. The sight of flowers stimulates dopamine production, as it signals the availability of food to our primordial brain. Our hunter gatherer ancestors would identify edibles in their habitat based on colour and therefore colourful flowers signal news of good nutrition, conveying a sense of wellbeing.
Similarly, Serotonin, the happy chemical, is also released in the brain when we see, grow, or buy flowers or even admire them from a distance. Flowers stimulate a sense of pride and wellbeing that our mammal brains are looking for. Cheering up troubled souls is no mean feat, which flowers can achieve by simply existing.
As an avid gardener, I often oscillate between dedicating space to flowers or vegetables. Flowers are a guilty pleasure, as a lot of my gardening friends focus more on practical choices like growing tomatoes, cucumbers and different kinds of chilies. Only recently did I discover that the growing of these blossoming buddies is also a service to ecology.
My small garden in Islamabad regularly hosts dragonflies, butterflies and even sunbirds. When my aloe vera plants come to flower in spring, these birds descend on the tunnel shaped flowers with their perfectly suited slender beaks. I also noticed with a hint of pride that butterflies breeze through my garden in winter, spring and summer. The hollyhocks had small flying insects thriving under their leaves even after the flowers had died out. While we place a plate of bajra and a bowl of water to feed birds, other visitors seem more like a gift since we didn’t consciously plan for their arrival. They came, beckoned but still welcome. The good news about flowers is that we can plant them in a small bed in the garden, in pots on our terrace or balcony for those of us living in apartments without access to a garden, or even place a pot in a window sill, from where they will smile at every passerby, suffuse with colour the tired minds around them and of course, feed the bees and butterflies.
Ayesha Fazlur Rahman is an education sector consultant and a blogger.