This is a rather long essay, part of my upcoming book about our Million Year Love Story with Flowers. Settle in with a cuppa, and I hope you enjoy this forage through deep time!
“Once all knowledge was the knowledge of a flower.” OLS 3.16.19
It never grows old, this deeply erotic springtime show, that was originally only for the beetles. I am so grateful they have found a way to continue this dance each spring for over 100 million years—an inconceivable length of time compared to the 300,000 years we Homo sapiens have been evolving.
When Magnolia’s soft velvety flower buds start to push out of their leaf tips, I can feel my heart begin to soften, already anticipating and remembering the swoon-worthy richness of their fragrance that will soon come. Later when they shed the soft furry coat that shields their blossoms, and begin to open their large, luscious petals, they invite me to open my own vulnerable heart with them.
While the beauty of the Magnolia flower alone is enough to make me swoon, their luscious, deeply fragrant scent completely overrides my rational thought and sends me reveling deep in my animal body. Delicately rose sweet, yet with the fresh clarity of citrus, it is for me is the quintessential scent of late spring romance. I want to crawl into their flower, curl up and stay there, wrapped in their strong soft petals with their scent intimately washing over me, stroking my naked skin. As Magnolia’s scent wafts under my nose, they open an ancient doorway that shifts time, and a brief glimpse flashes through my mind’s eye of the long procession of all those Magnolias who have come before.
Magnolia says: “I am an ancient, deeply fragrant memory that you hold in your heart. Feel my primordial unconditional love being offered to you. Let me be a safe place, a stronghold for you, as you open your heart wider. Trust your deep knowing that you are divine and allow your love for yourself to be unconditional as well.”
When Magnolia’s large off-white petals first unfurl, they expose their juicy stigmas—the female receptors for pollen. Hailing at the ends of a curling profusion of glistening tendrils that beckon ever-so-sensually, they are unabashedly calling in their mate, the perfect pollen.
The ripeness, the erotic dance of devotion and desire of Magnolia’s becoming is palpable in the opening of each blossom. They draw up their very life force from the dirt and offer it to the world with an unconditional love and embodied eros that is only possible in beings with no shame or fear.
Beauty and the Beast—The Kiss
Magnolia says to me: “I call the beetles to bring in the perfect match to my fragrant song, the pollen from another tree, as I offer my heart and hearth to them in return. As they dance all around the juicy opening to my womb, we share the joy of a mutual reciprocity and bonding forged so many millions of years ago, that we ache for it each spring until we find each other.”
How DOES Magnolia call in the perfect pollen? One of the great strengths of flowering plants is their knack for developing relationships with other life forms, other biologic “kingdoms,” and collaborating with them, bringing them into their community, their bosom. Science has almost completely separated the study of plants from animals, so that we have been taught there is little real communication between these seemingly separate life forms, even in the face of examples like the coevolution of bees and flowers.
What if they didn’t just accidentally happen to fall into something mutually beneficial, but have been in deep communication about their desires and longings from the beginning? What if we are animals that are not so separate from plants after all, but simply complementary halves of a whole? They breathe the carbon dioxide we exhale, we breathe the oxygen they exhale. They eat sunlight, we eat the sugars they have made from sunlight. We decay when we die and feed them. This pollination dance of flowers and their pollinators, is a remarkable love story. And as hokey as it sounds, opposites do attract!
Beetle had been catching the briefest, faintest scent all day. Not enough yet to aim their directional sense, but enough to make them drool. This was the scent that lived in their genes from one generation to the next. The one the DNA of their mother whispered in their heart. The scent that would truly nourish them, feed them in ways no other food could because of the bond that bound them together, a bond of the life force energy that we sometimes call love, ensuring their own genes would live on. They only knew that as long as there had been beetle ancestors, this was the scent they lived for each spring. And finally, there it was, strong and true, pulling them forward as fast as they could go.
Magnolia, as one of the first flowering plants that arose over 100 million years ago, began opening their blossoms about 35 million years before bees evolved from their meat-eating wasp ancestors. So, they called out to the older beetles instead, who apparently were—and still are—willing to eat most anything. They offered them sweet-smelling protein-rich pollen and a warm home to hang out in overnight. They made their petals tough enough to not be damaged by the beetles’ gnawing mandibles while somehow keeping them velvety soft at the same time. It feels a bit like Beauty and the Beast – this love story between Magnolias and beetles.
How long did it take them to make just the right scent to lure the beetles, to learn that it was the protein in their pollen that they really wanted? This courtship is so intricately orchestrated, that the details make an amazing story. Think of it as an intricate dance, (rather than a science lesson) with the steps learned over millions and eons of years, that still brings incredible joy to all around.
Flowers, like people, don’t want to inbreed, yet Magnolias have both male and female parts in each flower. The intricacy to achieve cross-pollination is so involved that our scientists still don’t fully understand many parts of it. This dance of desire, this longing for the other, is the generative life force that is so much more than just natural selection in the miracle of on-going creation we call evolution. These are the mysteries of life, of love.
Follow the story below, that shares a few of the basic dance steps performed by each flower, on each tree, each spring, for millions and millions of years.
As Magnolia flowers open in the morning, wafting their scent to attract the beetles to their blossoms, they are full of those juicy, sticky stigmas—the outer female pollen receivers—that are rather like a human vulva, except there are dozens on each flower. The foraging beetles arrive, drawn by the scent, bringing pollen from other flowers they have visited. When evening comes, the innermost petals close and trap the remaining beetles inside. The Magnolia flower literally generates heat, making a cozy shelter for the beetles to feel at home in overnight, keeping them warm enough to crawl all around and deposit pollen on their receptive stigmas. Then the stigmas close and begin to turn brown as the anthers—the pollen producing male structures—open and become active, covering the same beetles in fresh pollen so that when the petals open in the morning, the love-struck beetles will fly out and find another flower to pollinate. This intricate and precise delay in flower function helps prevent inbreeding and ensure cross-pollination.
Now, it is receiving time in the womb of the Magnolia, their ovule. Each female stigma, the receiver of the pollen, actively decides which pollen to allow to germinate and grow a pollen tube and impregnate their ovule—their womb. They block pollen that is too similar (to prevent inbreeding) and pollen that is too different (from another plant or species). It is the female flower tissues that allow or deny the pollen to germinate and enter their womb. They chose their partner for each and every seed. They know they can’t receive all the pollen, but the one chosen is welcomed and received deeply into their womb, their heart.
The movie, The Princess Bride, ends with this line: “Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.” But the narrator does not tell us what those other 5 kisses were. I suspect they included “the more than human world,” as David Abram says. What if the beetle kissing the Magnolia was one of them? The attraction between such very different beings on our Earth has been critical to the growth of life on our planet, like the kiss between algae and fungi to make lichen. Or like the kiss between the mycelium and the first land plants that enabled them to root themselves into the dirt. Or even the first kiss of the Sun upon the waters of the Earth.
Today the Southern Magnolia or Magnolia grandiflora, still grows wild in the coastal plains of the southeastern United States. Their blooms are 8 to 10 inches across, and they reach 50 to 100 feet tall, with large shiny evergreen leathery leaves up to 12 inches long, that are slightly furry and red on their undersides. When they grow in full sun they make a lot of shade, growing densely, and when in a shadier habitat they are lankier and grow openly.
They naturally grow in forests, alongside hardwood trees in areas that are moist, with loamy soils. They are typically found growing in the wild alongside southern red cedar, cabbage palmetto, loblolly pine, live oak, beech, sweetgum, yellow poplar, white oak, and hickory. They easily become one of the dominant species of a mature southern forest. They used to be restricted to wetter areas, since seedlings are easily killed by fire. The older trees are quite fire resistant, however, and with more fire controls in modern times, along with warming climates, the southern Magnolia is spreading to more upland sites.
Today, all Magnolia species are only native to the Americas between Canada and Brazil and to southeast Asia. But at one time, eons ago, they were in what is now Europe, most all North America, and all of Asia as well. A study of their movements all around the globe is a fascinating journey involving the movement of continents and dramatic changes in climates. When they first flourished and were spread throughout the continents, the climate was much warmer than it is today. Then the glacial ages arrived and they became divided, dying out in Europe and most northern climates. Plants DO move, just slowly—one generation at a time—finding newer, safer ground when they sense the climates changing.
How do they know when is it time to move, and when is it time to put down roots and stay awhile? Is life perhaps a series of cycles of being rooted and then being a traveler? When is it time to make a home? How do they know? What changes deep in their cells? What, or who, calls them to move? Magnolia may know when these shifts begin to occur long before others do, having done it so very many times over the eons, and surviving to be here today to share this wisdom with us.
What is a home? As humans we know these cycles too, of wanting to put down roots and make a home, and then other times of wanting to wander and travel and find new spaces to stretch our legs. What happens, however, when we begin to think the roots are permanent and must stay the same? Often, we want so badly for things to stay the same as what we know, to keep the “traditions.” To keep the same “native” plants around us. To keep the “family home.” To keep our “stuff.” To live and love where our ancestors are buried. Change is hard, whether you are a human or a Magnolia.
Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “A place becomes a home when it sustains you, when it feeds you in body as well as spirit.” Too often we focus on one and not the other, or fail to notice when we lose this balance, and cling to what we had, and miss the clues for the time to change.”
What can we learn from Magnolia about when to sink deep into our roots, when to go and find a new home that will feed us more deeply in new ways we can’t imagine yet? And when might we just need to travel for a while and try out new horizons before returning home? What can Magnolia tell us about traveling by seed? How to travel light, carrying the memories and wisdom of our ancestors on our backs, giving us the courage to step out into the unknown? What could Magnolia teach us about being open to what comes in an ever-evolving, always creating world?
The Big Red Seed—Audacious Love
When it is time to travel to a new home, what better way to go than to make yourself as big and colorful as possible and hitchhike there? Magnolia spares no expense, no effort in creating their luscious fire-engine red seeds.
Just like with the beetles they enticed to carry their pollen, Magnolia learned how much farther they could go with the help of others. They ask the animals and birds to carry their seeds far and wide. They learned early on the value of community building and collaborating. Leading the way for other flowers to do the same, they were surely building on the earlier collaborative work started by the algae, bacteria, and fungi when plants first moved onto land. These ongoing love stories allow intricate ecological relationships to blossom.
Magnolia proudly holds her newborn red seeds out to the world, clearly wanting them to be seen. Often, they are hanging by a single umbilical cord—a silk thread still attached to the vulva-like opening of their seedpod womb. They know their beauty, their rightness and purpose in the world, asking a bird or a squirrel to pluck them and carry them to their new home. The way the red seeds are spit out of the pod, is at once erotic and also playful, as if they are sticking out their tongue. It is a love story, like the outrageous plumage of a male bird doing its mating dance.
“Here!” they say, “Take this gorgeous treat that is a big fat drop of my life blood. I need to make sure you see how beautiful I am, just in case you missed my flowers earlier this summer! I am Grandflower Magnolia! I will not be ignored!”
And it is true, how COULD we fail to see them all through the season? With their bright glossy green leaves with rusty red undersides, their gloriously fragrant flowers in early summer, the fuzzy pink seed pods in summer, and their bright red seeds in early fall that they spit out everywhere; they call attention to themselves all year long.
In a world where the clamoring cacophony of voices increasingly cry out with their unmet needs to be seen and heard, it is tremendously refreshing to see how simple it can be, in nature. The Magnolia, shows us that our passion can and should be, shared without reservation. They never worry that they aren’t just right as they are.
What happens when we are not afraid of what others will think? When we dance and sing and create with the innocent wisdom of a 5-year-old child? Then our heart’s desire can burst forth like the red seed of the ancient Magnolia knowing its worth and place in the world without a second thought.
What is a seed anyway? What are these structures carrying the next generation of life? First and foremost, a seed is a mother protecting her living baby. Seeds are what make angiosperms, or flowering plants, unique. Angiosperm roughly translates from Greek to mean “seed vessels”, and they are an organism with three main parts, the embryo, (the baby); the endosperm (the fruit and food surrounding it); and the seed coat. They are alive, already fertilized, and as long as the embryo lives, they can germinate and grow.
A seed is a traveling home, self-contained, and able to call itself home for a temporary time without roots. I am reminded of times in my own life when I was happier traveling with only a pack on my back, independent and able to move where my whims or the wind took me, content with my body as my home. And then, when the seed finds the right place; the right temperature, light, amount of water; a switch, that is still barely understood, starts the germination of the embryo’s roots. Drawing sustenance from the soil, they make a commitment to their new home. Did the seed long for this new place to call home? Do they call out to the land, or listen for the land calling to them? How do we know in our own lives when to “put down roots?” When we are called into deeper relationship with one piece of land, what is germinating in us?
Some seeds are only viable, or alive, for two or three years, but some can live much longer. In 1983 a scientist found seeds in an ancient food storage chamber in Japan. The seed was dated to be 2,000 years old. He put them in water, then three months later, one seed swelled and grew. It became a 7-foot-tall Magnolia tree with blossoms with eight petals—and revealed itself to be a species that had been extinct. Sometimes that call to germinate takes a very long time, and the ability of some seeds (and some people) to wait, to remain self-contained for so long and yet still germinate, is quite miraculous. Most of us need to connect, to put down roots, and be fed much sooner.
When life can live in a seed for 2,000 years, time is stretched out in ways it is hard for us to comprehend. Science fiction has produced stories of freezing human eggs and sperm, even people, and having them awaken centuries later. What did this ancient seed sense when it sprouted and then finally bloomed many years later in a strange world without any of their family, or their familiar ecosystem? Were the scents and chemicals encoded in their seed still received by willing beetles and other Magnolias? Or in only 2,000 years had the ecosystem and climate already changed enough that their songs, their scents, their messages, fell to the ground only to be absorbed by the dirt? Did anyone still understand them?
Our own human languages become unintelligible in as little as 500 to 600 years because they evolve so rapidly. If we were to time travel, how would we be understood? Middle English, for example, is practically unintelligible without a translator or extensive study, as anyone who has read Chaucer knows. Do plant languages evolve more or less rapidly than our own?
Seeds are the memory-keepers of a species and all who came before them. They hold not only the DNA genetic code of how to form matter into the plant they know how to be, but they also hold the memories of all that has transpired before, of a collective experience; and therefore, they carry the knowledge of how to respond the next time it gets too hot, or too dry, or a forest fire happens, or it floods, or a long deep freeze descends. Our Lady of Woodstock says, “…eventually the plants will tell you what they know, and you have forgotten. That knowledge has been entrusted to their care.” (9.24.17)
Transcending time and space—as true time-travelers—seeds are the vehicles that enable flowering plants to make leaps in genetic code and diversify rapidly, to leapfrog across time, and be carried to new homes, to new places to root. Magnolia was an early trailblazer, bringing their memories through 100 million years of seed after seed.
The First Flower
How do we write a love letter extoling the eons of love the Magnolia has given us? How can we possibly understand this longest of long stories, as Perdita Finn, author of Take Back the Magic, calls these eons of time? How can our hearts feel and know the depth of their life, their mothering, and their wisdom?
Angiosperms—flowering plants—were the first plants to protect their seed by enclosing them and sending them into the world with food. This is what the flowers did that changed the world. But how did they begin?
Even though dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago, much more is known about the structure of dinosaurs than that of the first flowers. This is partly because the first flowers left no traces, having no bones, and only the luckiest of circumstances have captured the fragile tissues of petals and turned them into fossils.
An ancestor of Magnolia was long thought to be the earliest flower, as they were the oldest flower fossils found until recently, at 95 million years old. Over the last 20 to 30 years however, new methods of tracing flower ancestry and molecular biology have been able to discern even older ancestral flowers, and older fossils are still being discovered. In January of 2022, an article was published about a newly discovered 164-million-year-old fossil of flower bud found in China. Once thought to be only about 125 million years old, flowers are now known to be much older than was first believed.
Research following similarities and differences among related flowers with new scientific tools, allowed scientists in 2017 to infer that one of the earliest flowers looked like Magnolia.
And so, Magnolia truly can be the poster-child/poster-flower for the first flower.
Darwin, who dominated our understanding of evolution for so long, was mystified by the explosion of angiosperms that happened around 100 million years ago. He said, “the rapid development as far as we can judge of all the higher plants within recent geologic times is an abdominal mystery.” Today, it is still the holy grail of paleobotany, to discover the origin of the first flowering plants, and there are different schools of thought about how old they are.
Nonetheless, all agree that flowering plants began expanding remarkably fast starting about 100 million years ago, bursting onto the scene over only 3 to 5 million years—a very short period in evolutionary time scales. Then after the dinosaurs died following the asteroid impact and last great extinction 66 million years ago, flowers rapidly diversified, ushering in the Age of Flowers. Today, flowering plants represent over 90% of plant species living on land, and provide almost all of the food human beings rely upon, either directly or indirectly.
It is easy to feel like flowers have been here forever, but dinosaurs were roaming the Earth long before the first flower. Magnolias and dinosaurs “only” lived together for 30 million years, one at the beginning of their time on Earth, one at the end of their time. One survived the 5th great extinction, one did not. Did dinosaurs smell the Magnolias? Were they an especially tasty treat for them when they blossomed? Did they gather under the Magnolia trees when they were in bloom and revel in their fragrance as we do?
What did it take for Magnolia to survive the chomping and tromping of these huge herbivores? What deep memory does the DNA of Magnolia hold today of living with dinosaurs? Perhaps, “bigger is better” is still a long-held strategy from all those eons ago. Did dinosaurs encourage Magnolia’s evolution or hinder them?
Some say the dinosaurs were in trouble even before the impact of the asteroid that was the death knell for the dinosaurs. Flowers begin to truly flourish in the world right before the dinosaurs begin to decline. Evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup asserts that the emergence of new toxic flowering plants combined with dinosaurs’ inability to associate the taste of certain foods with danger, had them already drastically decreasing in population when the asteroid hit. The flowers were already making space for themselves—and in protecting themselves, they may have added to the dinosaurs decline.
What would it be like to live in a tropical forest of Magnolias, huge ferns, ancient pine trees, a few early flowering plants, beetles, wasps, large plant-eating dinosaurs, a few small mammals, and perhaps some large dinosaur-size, vulture-like birds? One group of scientists, led by paleobotanist Monica Carvalho, has done an extensive study of what these ancient rainforests looked like in Columbia, South America, by studying fossilized pollen grains and leaves.
Imagine you have traveled 100 million years back in time, to when Magnolia first thrived, and that you can safely walk through this tropical forest unharmed.
A hot, humid, heavy air surrounds you, weighs on you, making everything moist, especially your skin. It is wet, the ground is mushy, and it rains several times most days with the bright sun beating down in between. There are an abundance of beetles, ants, spiders, flies, and other insects you don’t recognize. Most are a bit bigger than you are used to, but not as huge as you heard they once were even farther back in time. This is a tropical jungle, but different than you imagined, because the canopy is open—you can see the sky. Much more sunlight comes through to the ground and the understory is much denser than a modern jungle. There are lot of large ferns and tall conifers or pine trees that almost look familiar, but not quite. In fact, ferns make up 40% of the total plant mass here, and 20% are conifers, leaving the remaining 40% to the new kids—the flowering plants or angiosperms. Most of them are much smaller than the ferns and conifers. Today, over 90% of plants in a jungle are flowering plants, so this is quite different. It is a very green world in this ancient jungle, there are not many flowers. Bees are only beginning to evolve. The big plant-eating dinosaurs are wading and waddling through the vegetation, eating voraciously, chomping wide swaths of the vegetation, even knocking down trees. The small mammals are here somewhere, but you don’t see them—they stay safely tucked away. A huge pterosaur with a 30- foot wingspan swoops in to snatch up a fish from the river that is running just on the other side of a line of lush Wollemi pines, an ancient pine that still lives in Australia today, almost extinct.
These ancient rainforests had become very stable and almost stagnant. The huge conifers were slowly dying off already, more subject to extinction events than the new angiosperms. The forest soil was largely depleted from eons of a persistent humid climate over millions of years, and the sustained trampling and extensive feeding by large herbivores, mostly dinosaurs, kept the canopy open by continually disturbing the habitat. The world of giants was a dying world.
The ecosystem was ripe for change, a reset.
Helping us to grasp the vast eons of time, there is one event that is burned into the very DNA of all who are living today. Sixty-six million years ago, everything changed when the 6-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid struck what is now the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, wiping out all the non-avian dinosaurs and 75% of all life on Earth. It triggered the 5th great extinction and an ecological disaster—or—an opportunity, depending on your viewpoint.
From Thomas Halliday’s book Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds comes this excerpt of his description of that day: “The crust shattered and melted with the [asteroid] impact, and hot magma splashed high into the sky. In the cool air, the droplets of rock solidified, raining hot glass spherule bullets over half of North America over the course of three days.”
After the initial horrific devastation, and a winter that lasted a generation or more, there was little sunlight worldwide for 100-200 years. In this new epoch born of fire, the plants and animals that survived rapidly adapted and took advantage of the newly emerging resources that opened up. Ashfall from the impact added phosphorus minerals to the environment, resetting fertility to the right conditions for young ecosystem development. Legumes moved in, setting nitrogen, adding more food for the high growth rate angiosperms. In that Columbian rainforest, with the dinosaurs gone, the recovering vegetation would have reduced the gaps in the canopy, triggering a “race for the light” among the tropical plants and starting the closed multi-layered jungle that we know today, dominated over 90% by angiosperms. To recover the same level of diversity took what we consider an incredibly long time—from 2 to 7 million years—and yet that is a relative short period in the geologic time scale.
Flowers didn’t just magically appear after the asteroid impact, but rather, they had laid the groundwork over the previous 100 million years. With their seeds flying and traveling about the lands; they slowly and steadily expanded. With a blank palette, it seems they had an immense amount of fun trying every conceivable configuration of shapes, colorful petals, sweet nectars and putting their seeds in odd little fruits, as well as ingenious defensive mechanisms. They were poised to be the best equipped form of life to take advantage of the new opportunities all the newly opened real estate offered. Not only are we here today because of the flowers, we are here because of an asteroid impact.
Author Sophie Strand says in her essay Healing—A Ghost Story, “We are the product not of a garden but of an impact. An extinction event. We are the children of the crater. The bodies produced by collision and eruption.”
Our Lady of Woodstock said on Feb 16th, 2020, “I have set a riddle before you. It appears on all sides. There is no retreat, and there is no going forward. There is no rapture to lift you up into the heavens. There is no descent into a protected place where you can hide from the changes to come. And yet, this riddle has been solved again and again throughout your history.”
The world on the day after the asteroid impact faced this riddle. Every being on the planet would have known in a short time that life would never be the same again. Faced with disaster, what did the Magnolia do? Likely, the only thing they knew to do—to make the best and the most seeds possible and send them into the world with more love and hope and trust than ever before, envisioning the new worlds that would become their homes.
In a world where so many beings had become so very big and survived largely by only looking after themselves, the ecosystem had become stagnant and ripe for collapse. Magnolias not only survived this last great extinction, but they also survived subsequent continents crashing together and splitting apart, mountains rising and ice caps forming. Through it all they have carried this story of their survival in each seed they make, still today.
After the sunlight had returned and those who remained began to find their footing, the flowering plants were able to mutate, diversify and prevail in the new landscapes in a lasting way much more quickly than their older relatives the conifers and ferns. The flowers were ready. And the ancient Magnolia, likely one of the largest flowering plants to survive the asteroid impact, led the way for the diversity that followed.
Flowers’ coevolution with insects started well before the asteroid impact. While our lusty Magnolia invited the beetles first, the bees came along a bit later, about 95 million years ago, and evolved to feed on the nectar of other flowers. After the land was ready to support new life again after the asteroid impact, the flowers also developed relationships with more insects, birds and animals, that then fostered an equally immense diversification among all these beings themselves because of all the new food they supplied. Mammals and then humans were able to evolve only because the flowers had produced seeds and fruits in such tremendous quantities that a new form of food became available to support these warm-blooded animals and their larger brains.
What was their secret? What if collaboration was the first principle of their evolution, rather than random selection and competition? What if it was first a love story—a desire to reach out and connect with other life? Connection isn’t always pretty, of course. Sometimes you are the one eating, and sometimes you get eaten. But who is to say that being food for another is not a love story too? Certainly, the flowers took a cue from the very first collaborations—those between the most ancient bacteria, fungi and other microscopic life forms. They knew they would be much more successful working together with all life, than always competing against each other and being radically independent. They called together life forms vastly different than themselves in ways that had never happened before on that scale and size, offering to feed others with the diversity of their fruits, fragrances, seeds, and pollen in return for the small favors of helping them pollinate themselves—by being surrogate sexual partners—and by carrying their seeds to new homes throughout the world.
In a world where we are taught to value our independence to the point of feeling shame when we need to ask for help, what can we learn from the ways the flowers collaborate?
Imagine you are stuck at home, well rooted, but still able to make an abundance of food. You are lonely, and deeply desiring connections, but so far trying to outdo your neighbors for attention has not worked. Then one day, you notice a being with wings flying by repeatedly, and knowing that you have extra food to offer, your desire begins to form into a new idea. What if this winged being could fetch that pollen your body has been aching for with a yearning that won’t subside? Could you dare to ask? And when you do, when you say “YES, please can you help me,” you learn the winged one has been searching for just this food that you have and is happy to bring you that pollen that will fulfill your deepest desire. And that day, upon learning to ask, making connection and sending your desires out into the world, and asking for what your heart yearns for, you learn that everything is possible, and there are so many beings waiting to help you.
Science usually describes coevolution as accidental happenings that became mutually beneficial. But what if another force was also at work? What if desire, love, the spark of creation—created a drive, a force—that drew these vastly different species together? What if the flowers collaborated intentionally with the insects and animals? What if their desire drew them together like a beacon? We have all experienced these inexplicable pulls. What if they are the life force of creation and evolution itself?
While scientists are making huge strides to uncover the origin of flowers and solve that “abominable mystery” of Darwin’s, it still truly is a riddle how these new type of plants called angiosperms exploded with such vigor, creativity and yes, love—spreading into the world and changing the face of the planet in such a relative short time. There is a lot of work being done now in the scientific world to understand collaboration’s role in biology and evolution, and it is looking ever more complex and compelling. In a Slate article from January of 2020, “What if Competition Isn’t As “Natural” As We Think?,” John Favini says, “…biologists like Scott Gilbert argue that animals, humans included, are really multispecies events, composite byproducts of collaboration,” and this: “…we must learn to recognize the impulse to naturalize a given human behavior as a political maneuver. Competition is not natural, or at least not more so than collaboration.”
Flowers clearly are building on eons of collaboration, but the way they enlisted collaboration with the larger beings—the insects, animals, and birds in such a crucial way to their success caused an explosion not only of their own success, but the exponential success of all those they worked with and fed.
In a groundbreaking study released in 2022, titled The Angiosperm Terrestrial Revolution and the origins of modern biodiversity, the authors say: “The rise of angiosperms triggered a macroecological revolution on land.” And, one author, Peter Wilf says, “More than a million species of modern insects owe their livelihoods to angiosperms, as pollinators such as bees and wasps, as leaf-eaters such as beetles, locusts, and bugs, or feeding on nectar such as butterflies. And these insects are eaten by spiders, lizards, birds and mammals.” Flowers and their fruits provided more food, more energy for the ecosystems than had ever been available before, allowing the growth of bigger and more complex animals, including eventually our own Homo family.
This fascinating chart developed as part of the above study, gives a visual understanding of this revolution. It is becoming clearer all the time how pivotal flowers were to the rise of all the life forms around us today, including ourselves.
While only one of several early flowers, Magnolia’s presence in our yards, gardens and forests allows us to see into the deep time of long-ago eons because they are still with us today in such abundance. They are powerhouses who figured out how to be among the first to flower, and how to survive the eons, becoming grandflowers of so many who came after with such incredible stories to tell. They don’t try to be like the newcomer flowers. They know their strength, their truth, their great beauty, and their heart’s desire. They know the true grace of being a crone. They are fierce, while able to stay soft as a baby’s cheek.
A portal into deep time, Magnolias help us understand how life, love and community have always been evolving on our Earth. They help us comprehend the eternity we have been loved. Does the newly sprouted Magnolia seed look at the world any differently if they emerge into the new dawn of a scaped-clean world after an extinction, or into a suburban backyard today? In each case, emerging with the full force of wisdom of all their ancestors behind them, they want nothing as much as they want to see the day that they pour this wisdom into their own seeds and send them into the world.
Being aware of their entire ecosystem more than we ever can be, yet unaware of themselves as actual individuals the way we are, is Magnolia’s wisdom their own, or is it a collaborative wisdom of all those around them, both the living and the dead? What would a circle of collective collaborative wisdom 100 million years old feel like if we could know it all at once, as if all times were now?