What is a flower, anyway?

Source: BBC

By Claire Asher

Flower is one of the earliest words we learn, and a fundamental part of our every day lives. Flowers may be the most common form of nature we encounter on a day-to-day basis, and yet when we try, they are surprisingly hard to define.

We posted the question on the BBC Earth Facebook page to see if any of our readers had the answer.

An impala lily (Adenium obesum) (Credit: Ann & Steve Toon/naturepl.com)

An impala lily (Adenium obesum) (Credit: Ann & Steve Toon/naturepl.com)

A flower, says Kevin Drucas, is an adaptation that “was so successful that over the last 200+ million years they radiated, speciated, climbed up into trees, cliffs, hid beneath snow … even battled pathogenic fungi and insects”, adding, “one could say flowers have conquered every habitat on Earth”.

A flower is “a very conspicuous sexual organ”

Other people felt a more spiritual relationship to the flower. “A flower is to a plant as eyes are to a person…expressive, beautiful, delicate yet strong,” says Kristy Hardage Launius, while Valerie Wakefield describes flowers as“magic, beauty, abundance”.

Many expressed the feeling that there is something indefinable about the flower.

“Describing how I feel about blooming flowers is like baring my soul…how do I put it into words?” says Naomi Sunczyk.

“What are flowers? We just don’t know,” says Jeff Schultz.

The flower is so hard to define that even scientists are still discussing it.

Hanson's lily (Lilium hansonii) (Credit: Martin Gabriel/naturepl.com)

Hanson’s lily (Lilium hansonii) showing the male and female sex organs (Credit: Martin Gabriel/naturepl.com)

Over the past year, the journal Botany Letters has published a series of articles discussing how best to define a flower.

There are over 350,000 known species of flowering plant

Most simply, a flower is “a very conspicuous sexual organ”, saysMarc-André Selosse, Professor of plant evolution at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Flowers are responsible for the producing the next generation of plants. “The exchange of sexual cells, which are embedded in the pollen, is carried out by wind or, most often, animals,” Selosse says.

Each flower is made up of the female reproductive parts, known as carpels, and a male part called the stamen. These are surrounded by petals, which are in turn enclosed by sepals.

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