We Could Learn a Lot From the Humble Flower

Don't be fooled by the adorable name. Sweet peas are survivors. Daina Varpina/Shutterstock

Despite their stunningly intelligent design, flowers occasionally suffer a breakdown. A blossom might get nicked by a stiff breeze or crushed by a falling branch.

A passing animal may check to see if it's worth eating. Sometimes, a stalk may become so overburdened with blossoms, it collapses.

But, according to a new study published in the journal New Phytologist, a plant's real genius may be how it weathers loss and hardship — and ultimately perseveres. In fact, they're so good at it, that you may be surprised just how often flowers break down.

Accidents happen, even in the flower world

"Mechanical accidents happen to plants fairly often and can, in some cases, stop the plant from being able to attract pollinating insects and so, make seeds," the study's lead author Scott Armbruster, an ecology professor at the University of Portsmouth, explains in a press release.

Indeed, a flower's chief aim in life — much like every other living being — is to go forth and multiply. To do that, the researchers note, the sexual organs of flowers and nectar tubes have to be perfectly aligned. That way, when a honeybee comes calling, the flower is perfectly poised to be pollinated.

An injury to a flower can throw a wrench into that relationship. So how does a flower right itself? To find out, Armbruster and his colleague, Nathan Muchhala from the University of Missouri, looked at 23 native and cultivated flower species from several continents.

They found an astoundingly rapid response system to just about any kind of calamity.

That's not to say all flowers get back on their feet with equal success.

The most resilient flowers were snapdragons, orchids and sweet peas — flowers considered bilaterally symmetrical, meaning their left and right sides look alike. When they're knocked out of balance — say by an errant human foot, they move quickly to right the ship. Armbruster and Muchhala noted that the plants did some shuffling of their flowers and, if necessary, even moved an entire stalk laden with flowers to regain their symmetry.

Colorful snapdragons in a garden.
The left and right sides of a snapdragon mirror each other. PixHound/Shutterstock

Snapdragons, orchids and sweet peas bounced back from some egregious injuries. Like a bent or broken stigma. That's the organ that receives the pollen from a bee and its tubes take it deep inside the plant's ovary. The plants managed to reposition a faulty or wayward stigma to ensure a smooth landing for bees.

Aside from whispering sweet come-hithers to bees, plants also have to court the sun in order to grow. That process, called photosynthesis, begins in the leaves. A bent or broken leaf just won't do. Again, Armbruster and Muchhala marveled at how the bilaterally symmetrical plants bent and twisted their healthy leaves to fully bask in the sun's bounty.

On the other hand, radially symmetrical flowers — those that have identical sections, no matter how you rotate the flower — weren't able to adapt as well. When petunias, buttercups and wild roses took a hit, their stems rarely bounced back.

A buttercup in a field.
As a radially symmetrical flower, every section of a buttercup looks the same no matter how you twirl it. Sunbunny Studio/Shutterstock

"Because the outlook is grave for plant species which don't allow pollinating insects in or which have lost the connection between nectar and its sexual organs, we expected plants might have found a way around this, if, for example, they are hit by high winds or falling branches," Armbruster explains in the release.

"What we found, in a haphazard sample of plants, was that bilaterally symmetrical flowers were able to use up to four methods of restoring their chances of being pollinated almost to pre-injury levels."

So, what exactly is the moral for humans who suffer a mechanical breakdown — or the bigger picture for a society hobbled by a pandemic?

Be not so much a buttercup, but rather a snapdragon. Or even a sweet pea. And find other ways to bask in the sun.

Indeed, for all the famed fragility of flowers, they know a thing or two about weathering catastrophe. It's a lesson they may even pass on to humans — if we care to listen to the wisdom of flowers.