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The secret language of flowers | Heather Whitney | TEDxSalford


Translator: Chelsea Esterline
Reviewer: Ivana Krivokuća Thank you very much. So far today, we’ve had talks
that have come from the depths of the Amazon
to space stations, to talking about neutrinos
that have come from supernova. I’m actually going to be talking
about something that anyone can observe in a garden, which is the interaction
between flowers and their pollinators. Now, although anyone can observe this – it’s actually been observed by humans
for quite a long time now. For example, Aristotle talked
about the behavior of bees and which flowers they visit. But what’s amazing is,
even though we’ve been observing plants, pollinators, and their behavior
for literally millennia, studying them now, we are still finding
completely novel things about the communication
between flowers and their pollinators. So, flowers have an incredible range
of meanings to us. We give flowers as greetings. We give them to say happy birthday
or to apologize. We have bouquets at weddings. We also have flowers
at funerals to say goodbye. And this apparently is thought to be
something we have done ever since we evolved. For example, there is evidence that even
our distant cousins the Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers. So, flowers have this incredible range
of meanings to us and always have done. Now, the Victorians had a tendency
to catalogue things and they took these symbols of flowers
and catalogued those as well. So they created something called
the language of flowers, in which different flowers
were given meaning. This actually meant
that secret messages could be passed by giving someone a posy of flowers. For example, red roses
were a symbol of true love. Dawn mentioned daffodils
being a symbol of hope. Pansies apparently signify thought
and irises mean good news. I think potentially
the most appropriate one for this particular gathering is the fact that Delphiniums apparently symbolize
the ability to transcend time and space. Though quite what Victorians
used that for I’m not entirely sure. So we’ve got all these meanings
that flowers mean to us. The symbols of the flowers are there. However, although there’s this diversity
of meaning for us, the actual diversity of flowers
is even more incredible than that. Because the diversity of flowers
is absolutely astounding. They vary in their shape, their color,
the scent they produce. They vary hugely in the way in which
they interact with their pollinators. In fact, the variety of ways
in which flowers are produced is so variable it completely
bewildered Darwin. He called the diversity of flowers
“an abominable mystery.” So, why is there such floral diversity? Well, to start to understand that, the first thing you need
to understand is plants. And the thing about plants is everyone sees them
as passive and benign, but actually plants
are hugely manipulative. Plants have to do everything animals do. They have to cope with predators;
they have to find food; they have to find a mate. They have to do all of that sitting still. And one of the ways they do that
is by manipulating other organisms. In the case of flowers, what they’re
actually manipulating pollinators to do is to act as a courier that’s carrying
a package from one flower to another. Now, some flowers
very kindly reward their courier, others are infinitely more sneaky. For example, one of the largest flowers
in the world, Rafflesia, actually manages to trick its pollinator by pretending to be
a slab of rotting meat. So this flower is large, sort of red,
with sort of lumps and bumps on it that look like rotting pustules and it also releases the most awful stench that does smell
exactly like a rotting corpse. It also heats itself up so it has the same
sort of temperature as a rotting corpse and flies are tricked very successfully
by this flower’s impersonation and come and lay their eggs on the flower
and get covered in pollen as they do so. Other flowers pretend to be the female
of solitary wasp species and fool males into grappling with them
and getting covered in pollen. Flowers could be seen
as a form of advertising. They’ve been called a sensory billboard. They have a whole range
of different sensory modes in which they advertise to pollinators. Some of these flowers,
such as the Rafflesia, actually do something
called false advertising, in which they give false rewards
to the visiting pollinators. But we know that many of these adverts
are using senses that we just don’t have and we’ve known this for a while,
partly by watching pollinator behavior and partly by the research
that’s being done. So for example, we know that bees
can see in the ultraviolet. And you can look at flowers
in the ultraviolet. The flowers up in that corner,
are how we see the flowers, and this corner here
are how the bees see it, if you include
the ultraviolet wavelengths. And as you can see,
there are additional patterns on the flowers that we can’t see,
but the bees definitely can. And if you observe pollinator behavior,
for example bats, you realize there’s an entire other world
of senses that pollinators use when they search out these flowers. So some flowers, for example,
that are pollinated by bats actually use acoustics and have an acoustic pattern
that the bats can use to find the flowers. [Diversity of floral surfaces] We know there’s
a whole diversity of signals, including in sensory modes
that we just don’t have. Now, one area of diversity
is in the floral surface. Now, if you’ve ever been into a florist
or a supermarket and looked at the petals
of a rose or a tulip, you’ll have noticed that actually
the petals are incredibly different. So a rose petal for example,
is really velvety. Whereas a tulip petal has
sort of a satiny sheen over the surface. If you compare that against
something like a buttercup, that has this incredibly glossy,
mirror-like surface. So there’s an incredible diversity
of different floral surfaces and shown here are just a range
of some of the ones that you might have
come across in your garden, from sunflowers to jasmine to hollyhocks. So, even in the garden you’ve got
incredible diversity of surfaces. We know that flowers are advertising
to their potential customers in the form of all
these different signals, but how do we know which signals are used and how do we know
whether pollinators respond to them? What we can do is we can ask
the target audience. So a lot of my work is done
with free-flying bees. And what we can do with these bees is we can literally ask them,
“which color do you prefer?” We can give them an array
of different colors and see which ones
they land on and they prefer. So then we can actually start to test out which aspects of the flowers
the bees actually really like. And we can then test
different types of flowers and different types of surfaces to actually see why bees
might prefer certain surfaces. One of the surfaces I’ve been looking at
is these particular lovely cells. We call them conical cells
for obvious reasons. They’re cone shaped. These are the sort of cell shape that give rose petals
that wonderful velvety texture. And by working with the bees
what we’ve found out is that these cells have a range of rather good
advantages to the flowers. And what we have also found is that these cells occur
in an incredibly wide range of flowers. Around almost eighty percent of flowers
actually produce cells like this on their petal surface. And what these cells are
is they’re multifunctional. They can do a whole range
of different things. So one thing they can do is they can actually enhance
the color of the petal. They can help focus the light
into the pigments inside the cell and make the color
more saturated, more deep. That deep, rich red of a rose petal is partly caused by the cells
in the surface. These cells can also alter
the temperature of the flower. They can help warm it up slightly. And this is also because a slightly darker surface is usually one
that absorbs temperature better. So you get a deeper colored flower,
a warmer flower. You also get a less soggy flower. So what these cells can also do is help the water roll off
the surface of a petal and change how the nectar
is sort of held within the flower. What we’ve also found
that they can do is that bees can actually feel the difference
between different cell types. So as well as giving the bees
a potential visual cue, these cells are giving them a tactile cue. They can feel the difference between a conical shaped cell
like this and a flat cell. And also we’ve found that these cells
not only give them a tactile sense, they also give them a tactile advantage. Having cells like this helps the bee
grip onto a flower and it helps them manipulate the flower. And if you think about
some flowers like snapdragons, where the bee actually has to open
the flower and climb inside, having a very grippable flower
can actually help. So these cells are hugely multifunctional. [Hidden aspect of patterns] And if you then start to look at
where these cells are produced, what you start to find
is there’s a hidden aspect to patterns. So this Geranium has got
a visual pattern on it: nectar guides that help guide the bee
in to where the nectar is. And so they find the reward quickly
and forage efficiently, which is good for the bee
because it gathers more food, and also good for the flower because the bee will learn
that’s a good flower to forage from and go and pollinate other flowers
of the same species. But what we find is that there are
multiple layers of the signal. So, I’ve told you that these different cell types
have different functions. If you look at the nectar guide,
what you find is that the patterns on the nectar guide,
the visual ones, are overlaid by patterns on
the actual surface structure of the petal. And we know that the bee can actually tactilely feel the difference
between those two cell types. So we know that some cell types can enhance the actual color
of flowers, but we’ve also found that there’s another form of surface structure
that can actually produce color. This is actually something called
structural color and the flower is actually
using the surface to produce a color which changes color
from whichever angle you look at it. So, in this flower here, the white part
of the petal has the conical cells on the outer part of the flower. Then the dark, rich part of the flower
has a diffraction grating, like you’d find on a CD, in the center,
overlying the center of the flower. [Iridescence in Hibiscus] [Iridescence in flowers] Now iridescence has been found
in flowers before, but usually only flowers
that were pretending to be animals. So this is an Ophrys,
which I mentioned earlier, which is actually pretending to be a wasp. And this is a Moraea from South Africa, where they’re actually
pretending to be scarab beetles trying to entice other beetles
to come and visit the flower. But flowers actually produce iridescence
purely as a cue on its own as well. For example, one flower that produces
incredibly strong iridescence are tulips. And if you were to look at a tulip, peel back the petals
and look at it in bright sunlight, you can see the play of different colors
over the surface of that tulip and that is the iridescence
that the flower is producing. [Tulip iridescence] [Patterns on patterns] So, what we’re finding is that flowers
are acting as a sensory billboard. They’ve got patterns of surface overlying
these patterns of color underneath and these different surfaces
have different roles, such that you’ve got patterns
on patterns on patterns. So this Hibiscus has one type of cell
on the outer part of the petal and another type of cell
on the inner part of the petal. [Patterns of surface structure/color] So, why are flowers doing this? Well partly, we think, because
different structures have different roles. The conical cells, the cone-shaped cells,
help the bees grip, whereas the iridescence,
we think, helps signal and actually helps the flower
to be found from a greater distance. And it can also give directional bearing, almost like a landing light
when a plane comes in. You can only see certain aspects
of the iridescence from the right angle. So, different surface structures
have different roles in a flower. But by having both types
of surface structure, the flowers actually have a bit of a trade-off
trying to get the best of both worlds. [Use for pollinators] [Flowers produce patterns
in multiple sensory modes] But what I think
is the most interesting thing, when you think about the way
in which we have adverts in this world, and they’re trying to advertise to us
on as many different levels as we can, is the fact that flowers got there first. The flowers are producing these patterns in multiple sensory modes,
overlapping and over-layering each other. And that these patterns act both
as advert and as instruction manual and sometimes even as reward as well. So they bring the insects in
and when you think about the tiny size of a bee brain
and the sort of complicated business that they have to cope with
in this increasingly complicated world, the flower is doing its very best
to both help the bee and also help itself by acting as this very dynamic
sensory billboard for its pollinator. Thank you very much for listening. (Applause)

20 Replies to “The secret language of flowers | Heather Whitney | TEDxSalford”

  • Holy Quran (Taha) (Pharaoh) said: "Who then, O Moses, is the Lord of you two?" (Moses brother Haroon)
    Moses answered: "Our Lord is He Who gave to each (created) thing its form and nature, and further gave (it) guidance."

  • Sorry darwin you have got no chance in the 21st Century Science. Those Electron Microscopes reveal the intricate details even in the flowers.. No chance for a brainless flower to be so complicated. goodbye evolution forever.

  • Plants probably have have intelligence, and can communicate through the root systems and mycelium. Much like our internet. Kind of like what they said about the root connections that movie 'Avatar'. Terrence McKenna had some interesting things to say about plants as well. We do not give plants, or nature as a whole, a lot of thought as we are all struggling to make paper dollars we then use to buy anything, and everything under the sun. This trend has brought pollution and destruction of whole species, and eco systems. Humans haven't learned to stop blowing themselves up, let alone consideration for others.

  • I love this kind of study, you will get to know the life of flowers and bees…that part of the world. Now days they spray chemicals like pesticides and green glow, which all of these are very dangerous for bees, which also making them away from the flowers. I personally as a florist I stopped using those products 8 years ago, and use natural water for the plants to shine naturally… and if I feel not healthy spraying it even to myself , I thought it will change the nature of the plant to. I don't even use hair spray for my own hair too:) I can't breath in hair spray…

  • I'm really into flowers, this is so curious, I would love to do sort of a specification in this area of biology in the future. The idea of working with molecules of flowers and interactions with other kingdoms amazes me. Soo good speech, thanks for the pieces of information as well.

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