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A Flower Blossoms for Its Own Joy

Ask a botanist why flowers bloom, and you are likely to get a long-winded answer about bees and pollination and co-evolution. Ask the bees, and you are likely to get an answer similar to Willie Sutton’s when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” As far as bees are concerned, blossoms are where the nectar is. And if bees and flowers evolved together so the bees wind up inadvertently pollinating flowers while they gorge themselves on the nectar, that really is of no immediate concern to the bee.

Now ask a flower why it blooms, and you are likely to draw a blank. Their blossoms open unprompted each spring. The flowers act without reflection or premeditation, as surefooted as a tightrope walker on a high wire. They are presumably heedless of all those bees hovering about. And yet the bees’ seemingly aimless buzzing from flower to flower is essential to the flowers’ pollination, which is of concern primarily to the aforementioned botanist.

If we must ascribe a motive to the flower’s blooming, we might turn to Oscar Wilde. He wrote, “A flower blossoms for its own joy.” This remark came in a letter in which Wilde argued that art exists for its own sake and for no other purpose. “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless,” he wrote. But whereas the uselessness of art might stand, those “useless” flowers feed bees, which make honey. They also pollinate the orchards and fields that feed humans. In suggesting that flowers blossom for the sheer joy of it, Wilde might fairly be accused on falling prey to the “pathetic fallacy,” that is, ascribing human emotions to plants, animals or inanimate objects.

It is, of course, humans who find joy in the blossoming of a flower — not the least photographers like me who try to capture their beauty in useless works of art meant to bring some small measure of joy to others. This, needless to say, is of no concern to the flower or to the bee — and only of concern to botanists who happen to be connoisseurs of art. Yet I strongly suspect there may be a bit of co-evolution involved in our interactions with flowers, which humans have been cultivating for thousands of years solely because they are beautiful.

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