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By Michael KlesiusPhotographs by Jonathan Blair

Essential to life—and to romance—flowering plants lure paleobotanists with the sweet mystery of their origin.

Read or print the full story.

In the summer of 1973 sunflowers appeared in my father's vegetable garden. They seemed to sprout overnight in a few rows he had lent that year to new neighbors from California. Only six years old at the time, I was at first put off by these garish plants. Such strange and vibrant flowers seemed out of place among the respectable beans, peppers, spinach, and other vegetables we had always grown. Gradually, however, the brilliance of the sunflowers won me over. Their fiery halos relieved the green monotone that by late summer ruled the garden. I marveled at birds that clung upside down to the shaggy, gold disks, wings fluttering, looting the seeds. Sunflowers defined flowers for me that summer and changed my view of the world.

Flowers have a way of doing that. They began changing the way the world looked almost as soon as they appeared on Earth about 130 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. That's relatively recent in geologic time: If all Earth's history were compressed into an hour, flowering plants would exist for only the last 90 seconds. But once they took firm root about 100 million years ago, they swiftly diversified in an explosion of varieties that established most of the flowering plant families of the modern world.

Today flowering plant species outnumber by twenty to one those of ferns and cone-bearing trees, or conifers, which had thrived for 200 million years before the first bloom appeared. As a food source flowering plants provide us and the rest of the animal world with the nourishment that is fundamental to our existence. In the words of Walter Judd, a botanist at the University of Florida, "If it weren't for flowering plants, we humans wouldn't be here."

From oaks and palms to wildflowers and water lilies, across the miles of cornfields and citrus orchards to my father's garden, flowering plants have come to rule the worlds of botany and agriculture. They also reign over an ethereal realm sought by artists, poets, and everyday people in search of inspiration, solace, or the simple pleasure of beholding a blossom.

"Before flowering plants appeared," says Dale Russell, a paleontologist with North Carolina State University and the State Museum of Natural Sciences, "the world was like a Japanese garden: peaceful, somber, green; inhabited by fish, turtles, and dragonflies. After flowering plants, the world became like an English garden, full of bright color and variety, visited by butterflies and honeybees. Flowers of all shapes and colors bloomed among the greenery." 

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Final Edit

The photo rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit.


Exotic flowering plants make a summer splash as this month's desktop wallpaper.

Final Edit

Salute a friend with an e-greeting of a floral flag.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Flowering plants depend on everything from mammals to trickery in order to get pollinated. In Madagascar the traveler's tree is pollinated by the ruffed lemur and has evolved huge white flowers that support the weight of this almost ten-pound (five-kilogram) primate. Enticed by copious nectar that drips from the flowers—lemurs appear to be dependent on the plant's nectar for food at certain times of the year—they carry pollen on their fur as they move from flower to flower.

While nectar is often offered as a reward to pollinators in exchange for pollen dispersal, some species of flowering plants offer no reward at all. Instead they dupe their pollinators with an enticing fragrance, shape, or color. In western Australia a species of hammer orchid has petals that mimic the shape and color of a female wasp and even produces an odor that mimics the smell of a female wasp. In response to these chemical and visual signals, the male wasp attempts to mate with the dummy female. In seizing the orchid flower, the male wasp triggers the hammer mechanism and gets pollen whapped on its back. When the wasp visits the next hammer orchid, it unknowingly distributes the pollen.

—Nora Gallagher

Did You Know?

Related Links
The Eden Project
Take a virtual tour of the Cornwall, England, conservatories that house thousands of plant specimens from biomes around the world. The Eden Project seeks to enlighten visitors about plant conservation issues.

The Unseen Garden
Visit the Missouri Botanical Garden, a mecca for botanists, online and find out about the international research conducted there.

Arboreta, Conservatories, and Botanical Gardens
Visit this site and locate a beautiful spot in your area to botanize.

The American Orchid Society
Join the live orchid forum or find an orchid society near you. This site is an excellent resource for all your orchid curiosities.

Crocodile Fotos by Jonathan Blair
View a portfolio of Jonathan Blair's National Geographic photographs.


Judd, Walter S., and others. Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach. Sinauer Associates, Inc., 1999.

Proctor, Michael, Peter Yeo, and Andrew Lack. The Natural History of Pollination. Timber Press, Inc., 1996.

Raven, Peter H., Ray F. Evert, and Susan Eichorn. Biology of Plants, 5th ed. Worth Publishers, 1992.

Zomlefer, Wendy B. Guide to Flowering Plant Families. University of North Carolina Press, 1994.


NGS Resources
Nyquist, Kate Boehm. Plant Power. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Walt, Vivienne. "Flower Trade: From Field to Vase, Fresh Blooms Travel a Winding Road," National Geographic (April 2001), 102-119.

James, Felix. From Field to Florist. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Newman, Cathy. "Perfume, the Essence of Illusion," National Geographic (October 1998), 94-119.

Howell, Catherine Herbert. Plants. National Geographic Books, 1998.

Watkins, T. H. "The Greening of the Empire: Sir Joseph Banks," National Geographic (November 1996), 28-53.

Wolinsky, Cary. "Wildflowers of Western Australia," National Geographic (January 1995), 68-89.

Ellis, William S. "The Gift of Gardening," National Geographic (May 1992), 52-81.

Meijer, Willem. "Saving the World's Largest Flower," National Geographic (July 1985), 136-140.

Aikman, Lonnelle Davison. "Herbs for All Seasons," National Geographic (March 1983), 386-409.

Zahl, Paul A. "Southwest Australia's Wild Gardens: Bizarre and Beautiful," National Geographic (December 1976), 858-868.

Young, Gordon. "Hawaii, Island of Fire and Flowers," National Geographic (March 1975), 398-425.

De Roos, Robert. "The Flower Seed Growers: Gardening's Color Merchants," National Geographic (May 1968), 720-738.

Zahl, Paul A. "Malaysia's Giant Flowers and Insect-trapping Plants," National Geographic (May 1964), 680-701.

Gray, Ralph. "Rhododendron Time on Roan Mountain: Each June Giant Blossoms Flame in Natural Gardens in the Clouds on the Lofty Tennessee-North Carolina Border," National Geographic (June 1957), 819-828.

Wells, Virginia L. "Photographing Northern Wild Flowers: Traveling by Plane, Car, Canoe, and Afoot, an Adventurous Amateur Captures the Beauty of South-central Alaska's Natural Gardens," National Geographic (June 1956), 809-823.

Kneen, Orville H. "Patent Plants Enrich Our World," National Geographic (March 1948), 357-378.


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