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A Brief History of Flowers

Published: Wednesday 9 August 2023

A Brief History of Flowers

A Brief History of Flowers

Flowers have graced our planet for more than a hundred million years. They have not only colored the world with their vibrant hues but also played a significant role in the evolution of our ecosystem, culture, and civilization. From their pivotal role in plant reproduction to their symbolism in human society, flowers have a rich history that intertwines with the story of Earth and humankind.

Ancient Beginnings

The earliest flowers appeared around 140 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Before their emergence, the world was dominated by gymnosperms – plants that reproduce through uncovered seeds, like conifers. The appearance of angiosperms, or flowering plants, marked a revolutionary shift in plant evolution. Their unique reproductive system, which employs flowers and encased seeds (fruits), gave them a significant advantage, allowing for a rapid spread and diversification across the globe.

Flowers and Pollinators

One of the reasons behind the success of flowers was their relationship with pollinators. Flowers developed various shapes, sizes, colors, and scents to attract specific pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds, and even bats. This pollination mechanism ensured efficient and targeted reproduction. Co-evolution with their pollinators allowed for the intricate designs and mechanisms we see in flowers today, such as the bucket-shaped flowers of orchids to facilitate specific bee pollination, or the deep tubes of trumpet vines catering to hummingbirds.

Symbolism and Human Culture

Flowers have always held symbolic importance for humans. Ancient civilizations imbued flowers with meaning and incorporated them into their myths, legends, and daily rituals. The Greeks associated flowers with gods and goddesses; the lotus held spiritual significance in ancient Egyptian civilization and still does in many Asian cultures. In Christianity, flowers like the white lily are symbols of purity and are often associated with the Virgin Mary.

Cultures around the world have used flowers in ceremonies, from births to funerals, as a means to express emotions when words fall short. They have been symbols of love, grief, passion, purity, and many other human sentiments.

Flower Trade and Horticulture

The human fascination with flowers soon turned into a desire to cultivate, modify, and trade them. The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and China all engaged in flower cultivation, with flower trading routes resembling those of spices and silk.

By the Renaissance period, flowers had become subjects of still-life paintings, and with the Age of Exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, the exchange of flowers across continents became more prevalent. New species found in newly discovered lands were brought to Europe and other parts of the world. Tulipomania, the 17th-century economic bubble in the Netherlands, showcased the obsession of the era: tulip bulbs. Some rare bulbs fetched prices higher than the cost of houses.

The Victorian era took the human-flower relationship a step further with "floriography" – the language of flowers. Every flower was attributed a specific meaning, allowing people to send coded messages through bouquets.

Botanical Science

The study of flowers also made significant contributions to science. In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, used the structure of flowers to classify plants. This system made it easier for botanists to categorize the vast array of plant species.

In the 19th century, Gregor Mendel's experiments on pea plants laid the foundation for the science of genetics. By observing the inheritance patterns of flower color and other traits, Mendel formulated the basic principles of heredity, which are still taught in biology classes today.


Today, as many habitats are under threat from human activities and climate change, numerous flower species are endangered. Efforts are being made globally to conserve both the flowers and their habitats. Botanical gardens, seed banks, and conservation programs work tirelessly to ensure that the history of flowers doesn’t end on our watch.


From ancient meadows to modern gardens, from being revered in temples to being studied in labs, flowers have been silent witnesses to the unfolding of Earth's history and human civilization. Their story is a testament to the intricate beauty of nature and the profound connections that bind all life on our planet.