What Is a Flower?

A curious question

Melissa Toldy
Oct 16, 2020 · 5 min read
five women with pink hair illustration
five women with pink hair illustration
illustration by author

What is a flower? Here’s a concise answer: the reproductive part of a plant.

Does that satisfy your curiosity?

If you smelled a rose once, would you rely on your memory, or would you keep sinking your nose into its fragrant petals, every chance you got?

Nature does both — references the past and repeats the process. Nature makes patterns, and patterns shape the universe.

You can turn any shape into a flower. Here’s what you do:

  • Create a shape — a line, a sqiggle, a circle, any shape will do
  • Make copies of the shape
  • Rotate the copies
  • Arrange them in a circular pattern

What is a flower? Here’s a mathematical answer: concentric circles.

deconstructed flower illustration
deconstructed flower illustration
vector flowers, illustration by author

A cashier told me, “You are creative,” when I brought a flower bundle to her register. I picked out green mums, purple asters and white baby’s breath.

These simple varieties usually crowd a showy flower, like an iris or a lily. I chose them for their colors, and I chose them because they were cheap. There was no creativity involved, on my end.

The cashier called me “creative,” but she was experiencing her own creativity. The small flowers, when grouped together, appeared lovelier than ever. I showed her an arrangement she never expected.

That was ten years ago. I remember being called “creative” because creativity matters to me. Like all humans, I crave transformation and innovation. There’s something liberating about the idea that we can and will evolve.

Maybe flowers remind us of the natural world — where creativity reigns.

abstract floral illustration
abstract floral illustration
are these flowers between fingers?

Bumblebees bite flowers. I learned this, while reading National Geographic. They nip the plant leaves, to stimulate an earlier bloom.

When scientists observed the bumblebees, they thought, How unexpected! How surprising! That the bees communicate with the flowers, in this way.

But their fascination didn’t end there. They could have marveled at the clever bee, made note of it, and moved on. Of course, that’s not what they did. They thought, How can this information be useful to humans?

If we copy the bees, we can stimulate faster blooms from the plants we cultivate — a possible breakthrough in agriculture.

It’s not as simple as an incision, though. We don’t know if the bees’ saliva causes a chemical reaction. We don’t know how much cutting is necessary, or productive.

There’s a thin line between harm and harmony.

If I look over my right shoulder, I can see my bluebonnet tattoo. It’s my only tattoo, and it’s not unique. My twin sister has a mirror copy of the flower on her left shoulder.

When I sat for my tattoo, ten years ago, I looked at a poster on the wall in the tattoo shop. A large bird, a hawk or gosling, spread its wings across a blue sky. I watched the still bird, and I sat very still. The tattoo artist told me, “You’re a good sitter,” afterward.

People say tattoos are painful. I felt the sharp tool on my skin, but it didn’t hurt. My brother had died a few months before, and I was grateful to be alive.

Bluebonnet is the Texas state flower. I got the tattoo, in Austin, while visiting my family. I didn’t know it would become a symbol of home, here in New York City. Other Texans notice the ink, and they’re drawn to me, to the flower. They say, I’m from Texas too!

But I’m not from Texas. I don’t know where I’m from. I don’t even know if I’ve bloomed, yet.

abstract illustration of bluebonnet flowers
abstract illustration of bluebonnet flowers
vector bluebonnets

Virginia Woolf wrote a famous first line in her novel: Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

It’s a meme now, with special resonance during the pandemic.

I heard the line repeated in a film, The Hours. I’ve spent hours watching this movie, since it came out, nearly two decades ago. Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf. Meryl Streep played a modern day, New Yorker version, of Mrs. Dalloway. I love these actors, in these roles.

Flower bouquets appear throughout the film. People place them in buckets, vases, and ornate vessels. They bring life (and death) into people’s homes.

Do you like having flowers in your home?

I have a friend who admires flowers — dead or alive. She hangs dried bouquets in her living room. I have another friend who rejects flowers — as a gift. She doesn’t want to live with them. She doesn’t want to watch them die.

Virginia Woolf had no illusions about death. She knew it was inevitable. Knowing this, made her feel more alive.

My mother lives in Texas, and I live in New York. This year, I sent her digital flowers on her birthday— ones I made with a vector graphics program.

Maybe next year, I can visit my mom in person. Bring her fragrant flowers, flowers that remind her of nature’s creativity, and yes, flowers that will die.

Like bees and other pollinators, you gravitate to flowers. Their colors, shapes, and heady scents. Flowers lure you closer.

You recognize floral designs, on wallpaper and textiles — daisies, sunflowers, tulips. You notice the delicate notes, in your tea — lavender, chrysanthemum, jasmine.

Flowers reproduce, and we reproduce them.

What is a flower? Here’s a different answer: a symbol for life and love.


Stories connected by personal experience

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