Anatomy of a Rose: Exploring the Secret Life of Flowers

Sharman Apt Russell, Author Basic Books $24 (232p) ISBN 978-0-7382-0208-2
This deceptively slim book by acclaimed nature writer Russell (When the Land Was Young; Kill the Cowboy; etc.) is nothing less than an anatomy of beauty. A luminous blend of memoir, botany lesson and history of science, this volume investigates the complex mechanics behind the flower's sensory appeal, which, as Russell shows, is its essential tool for survival. Shapes, colors and smells are invitations to pollinators; the daisy is a ""ring of light to attract the bee""; the yellow streak on an iris is a landing strip; the henna flower's scent is a sexy come-hither. On the other hand, flowers pollinated by flies and certain beetles can smell like dead animals, rotting fish or dung. Through evolution, flowers change their attributes in response to predators and environment and, in some cases, in order to outwit or deceive their insect guests. Many flowers exaggerate their virtues, Russell writes, displaying bushy hairs or bright colors on their stamens so that they look richer in pollen than they really are, and some, like the water lily, which lures hoverflies to their deaths, are downright aggressive, a sampling of how mutualism among flowers and insects can be competitive as well as cooperative. Russell discusses the intelligence of flowers, how they position themselves to catch the sun, choose when to release their pollen for maximum impact and how they communicate with, and sometimes prey upon, one another. The author gives a brief history of taxonomy, the naming and classification of flowers, and its development over the last century as theories in biology have changed. She also touches on the healing properties of flowers; their prehistory beginning in the age of the dinosaurs; the mass extinction that destroyed their reign but which proved to be a boon to flowering plants and mammals; and the latest mass extinction which the author says is just now gaining momentum. A rich and satisfying read, Russell's book is like a guided walking tour in a field of wildflowers on a splendid summer day. (Apr. 1)
Reviewed on: 03/01/2001
Release date: 03/01/2001
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