The secret life of flowers: Why we love them and why we need them

Every day jumbo jets filled with nothing but cut flowers fly around the world – fulfilling a global demand for brightly coloured flora to be part of our lives. But why are we so attracted to flowers? And beyond simply being beautiful, what other purposes do flowers serve?

According to Dr Tamara Watson from the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, the power of a flower is its subtle ability to moderate mood – something it has been evolving to do for hundreds of years.

“The main purpose of a flower is to attract a pollinator. To do this the flower needs to signal their presence to pollinators and, more than simply being visible, I’d suggest that they also need to be attractive to pollinators, humans included,” says Dr Watson.

“But they don’t need to be stunningly beautiful, which is why I think their effect on us is probably subtlety felt, but quite powerful none the less. My hypothesis is that the flowers we love the most will have characteristics that cause just the right balance of activity across the sensory areas of the brain. Not too plain, not too subtle, and also not too complicated.”

The result of this – as Dr Watson hypothesises – is a feeling of pleasure. A feeling that has become ‘universal’ when it comes to seeing flowers as a result of them adapting to be attractive to a wide range of pollinators.

“This gives them the power to universally and subconsciously carry the message of love in times of joy and to provide some comfort in times of sorrow where words or other symbols might fail us,” Dr Watsons says.

However, despite flowers having universal appeal, not all living things are attracted to the same type of flowers. Something Dr Watson says is vital to understand, especially when planting gardens to attract bees.

“Humans and bees see different parts of the light spectrum. Where we see red, a bee probably sees grey and where bees see ultraviolet light we don’t see any colour. So we’re attracted to different colours of flowers. Interestingly though, we both seem to be attracted to just the right level of complexity in flowers and are both partial to flowers with bullseye patterns,” she says.

“The problem when choosing flowers for the garden to attract bees then is that the flowers with a bullseye pattern that the bees are attracted to, are very likely to be flowers that look quite plain to us. This is because the bee’s favourite bullseye is probably going to involve ultraviolet light that we cannot see.”

Beyond simply understanding why these brightly coloured things make us feel good, Dr Watson says unlocking the secrets of flowers would have other benefits. For example, making advances in the field of neuroscience by understand how the brain responds to real world stimuli; combatting climate change by encouraging a range of pollinators; developing new varieties of cut flowers and new aesthetically pleasing ways to arrange them to fuel the billion-dollar flower industry; and understanding whether flowers could play a significant therapeutic role.

“I could imagine, for example, that over and above the positive effect access to space with trees and greenery can have for people with dementia there might be additional benefits if the plants are chosen so that they also flower regularly,” Dr Watson says.

Dr Tamara Watson will be one of a number of academics speaking at Flowers, Flowering, Plants, Us and the Environment, 23 October, as part of Western Sydney University’s Research Week. Visit Event Brite (opens in a new window) for more information and to book tickets.

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23 October 2017

Emma Sandham, Senior Media Officer