Health & Wellness:
The Power of the Flower
There was, at some unknown point in the history of human development, a time when we first became attracted to flowers and admired them for their beauty. As a PBS special based on journalist Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, makes clear, we have cultivated flowers for thousands of years, surrounded ourselves with them in gardens and in our homes, spent billions of dollars on them, though flowers serve no useful purpose at all.
However, scientists now speculate that flowers have evolved to be desirable, not
“Flowers have evolved to make us happy, and we have evolved to find beauty in flowers.”
just to the insects and animals that fertilize them, but to us, as well. A study conducted by scientists Jeannette Haviland- Jones and Terry McGuire at Rutgers University in 2005 showed that fresh flowers, when given to the participants of the experiment, produced “immediate and longterm effects on emotional reactions, mood, social behaviors, and even memory for both males and females,” and, further, suggested that cultivated flowers have “evolved to rapidly induce positive emotion in humans.”
Flowers are part of what Drs. Haviland- Jones and McGuire call “the evolutionary niche for emotional rewards”. Across cultures and across time, humans have incorporated flowers in burial and religious practices, and in personal adornment. Flowers have been used to express emotions such as sympathy, love, and romantic intent. Their scents have been captured for our own enhancement in oils and perfumes, suggesting that their smell, not just their appearance, enhances our moods, excite us, and give us pleasure. In other words, flowers have evolved to make us happy, and we have evolved to find beauty in flowers.
As humans, we are not alone in this. Flowers have offered unusual benefits to insects and other animals besides food. Hawk moths, for example, go to Datura flowers for the hallucinogenic effects they have. Many orchids make very little nectar to attract bees, but offer other rewards. One, for example, provides a pheromone that the bees collect in pouches and use to attract mates. Other orchids entice bees to “mate” with them. Flowers really do have power.
Of course, it’s not all primal instincts. There are learned behaviors at play. Flowers evoke specific memories of celebrations and happy occasions as well as generalized associations with beauty and abundance. Research into the placement of flower arrangements shows that most
households put fresh flowers in the entryway, foyer, or living room, indicating there is a social aspect to flowers that symbolizes welcome and warmth. Flowers have artistically developed aesthetics designed to appeal to us, which become apparent in gardens, images (both fine art and design), and floral arrangements. And, they have cultural caché.
One case study explored by Mr. Pollan is the tulip, which was cultivated in the Netherlands in the 17th century, and incited such desire for them that a single bulb could cost more than an entire home. The tulip was introduced to Europe from the Ottoman-ruled court at Constantinople in the 16th century, making its way to Vienna, then supposedly brought to Amsterdam by a man named Carolus Clusius, who jealously guarded his tulips from others until they were stolen from his garden one night. From there, tulip seeds were spread all over. But that is not the end of the story. Left alone, the tulips quickly mutated until those that were noticeably extraordinary—perhaps with more petals, or with frills, or with deeper or unusual color—were coveted. In order to propagate a certain mutation, one had to possess the bulb, not just the seed, and commence a very slow process, resulting in outstanding demand and little supply.
In the last decade there have been more studies into the effects of flowers. In a 2008 study, postoperative patients who recovered in hospital rooms with flowers required less pain medicine than those placed in rooms without flowers. Nicolas Guéguen of the Université de Bretagne- Sud in France published his findings in 2011, showing that when women watched videos of men, they found the men more attractive if there were flowers in the room. Similarly, women were apparently more receptive to male attention when there were flowers present. A Harvard study conducted by Nancy Etcoff showed that people who do not consider themselves morning
“Post-operative patients who recovered in hospital rooms with flowers required less pain medicine.”
persons felt more energetic and positive if they saw flowers first thing in the morning.
The social and monetary economics of the flower have, in the modern era, become intertwined. Today, florists are cashing in on the positive psychological effects of flowers, marketing their products as to brighten their customer’s day. And there are good reasons to believe them. In Drs. HavilandJones and Maguire’s experiment, 100% of their study group displayed genuine happiness at receiving flowers (as determined by the Duchenne smile, a true smile), which is practically unheard of in scientific data. Because flowers induce happiness in the immediate— and improve mood in the long-term, flowers have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as alleviate depression and fatigue. If these negative moods are alleviated, as science has shown repeatedly, memory and cognition improve. An emotional response that recurs in recent findings is that flowers make people more compassionate.
Finally, the positive effects of flowers on older adults are striking. In one experiment, a group of older women in senior living communities were given either no flowers, one, or two bouquets of flowers over a two-week period. Those who received one bouquet of flowers reported more positive moods at the end of the study than at the beginning. Those who received two bouquets were significantly less depressed than those receiving just one, while those who received no flowers at all were more depressed than those who received just one. ■