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A look at plant parenthood

Published June 02. 2012 09:01AM

Charles Darwin went to his grave without knowing the answer to a puzzling question. It was so troubling to him that he called it the 'abominable mystery.'

What Darwin wanted to understand is this: Why did flowering plants appear 140 million years ago with such an abrupt start and amazing diversification?

The fossil record just didn't have clues. The question has stumped scientists for years. But many now feel it's being answered in our lifetime.

It may have something to do with genomes, or plants' genetic makeup/make up, and two major events, they say, one happening 320 million years ago and another taking place 192 to 210 million years ago. They say plants were sparked by those two 'big bangs.'

Flowering plants may have enjoyed a distinct evolutionary advantage that allowed them to survive harsh climate changes and even extinctions. This would include a mass extinction approximately 65.5 million years ago that may have been triggered when an asteroid hit Earth.

In fact, a biology professor at Penn State says the two major upheavals of 200-300 million years ago produced thousands of new genes that may have helped drive an evolutionary explosion leading to today's rich diversity of flowers.

I'm not sure about any of this but find it fascinating, in part because plants and flowers are a big part of our culture.

Last Monday, Memorial Day, I watched a veteran lay a wreath at a local cemetery. It was a gesture with lots of meaning. The flowered wreath provided the right embellishment. We use flowers at most of life's special events receptions, parties, weddings and funerals. A proud dad will hand out cigars when a child is born a gesture we might call plant parenthood because a cigar is essentially a tobacco plant.

The bottom line is that plants and flowers are important to us in many ceremonial ways.

We get food and medicine from plants, too. For instance, from the foxglove plant we get digitalis, currently used in the treatment of heart problems. They say asparagus, part of the lily family, is good for the kidneys and also an anti-cancer agent.

If Darwin were still alive, he'd definitely have lots to say about the newest discoveries in the evolution of plants.

Darwin was intrigued by flowers, especially orchids. He even wrote a book about orchids.

In 2007, an ancient orchid was found preserved in amber alongside a bee. The find enabled a Harvard-based team to date the origin of orchids to about 100 million years ago, revealing that they were blooming when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Today there are more than 300,000 species of flowering plants and flowers.

All of us have our favorites. I happen to enjoy iris, lilac and gladiolas.

Like most flowers, they're only here for a short time. Their colors are fleeting.

But that kind of rarity makes flowers special.

And it makes people special, too. Just like flowers, people are at their best when in full color.

And just like flowers, people are here only a short time.

Peter, Paul and Mary knew it all along, and told us as much when they sang "Where have all the flowers gone?"

Live for today. Enjoy each moment. And make sure you bloom.

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