The physics of beauty requires math. The sunflower has spirals of 21, 34, 55, 89, and – in very large sunflowers – 144 seeds. Each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. This pattern seems to be everywhere: in pine needles and mollusk shells, in parrot beaks and spiral galaxies. After the fourteenth number, every number divided by the next highest number results in a sum that is the length-to-width ratio of what we call the golden mean, the basis for the Egyptian pyramids and the Greek Parthenon, for much of our art and even our music. In our own spiral-shaped inner ear’s cochlea, musical notes vibrate at a similar ratio.
The patterns of beauty repeat themselves, over and over. Yet the physics of beauty is enhanced by a self, a unique, self-organizing system. Scientists now know that a single flower is more responsive, more individual, than they had ever dreamed. Plants react to the world. Plants have ways of seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.
Rooted in soil, a flower is always on the move. Sunflowers are famous for turning toward the sun, east in the morning, west in the afternoon. Light-sensitive cells in the stem “see” sunlight, and the stem’s growth orients the flower. Certain cells in a plant see the red end of the spectrum. Other cells see blue and green. Plants even see wavelengths we cannot see, such as ultraviolet.
Most plants respond to touch. The Venus’s-flytrap snaps shut. Stroking the tendril of a climbing pea will cause it to coil. Brushed by the wind, a seedling will thicken and shorten its growth. Touching a plant in various ways, at various times, can cause it to close its leaf pores, delay flower reproduction, increase metabolism, or produce more chlorophyll.
Plants are touchy-feely. They taste the world around them. Sunflowers use their roots to “taste” the surrounding soil as they search for nutrients. The roots of a sunflower can reach down eight feet, nibbling, evaluating, growing toward the best sources of food. The leaves of some plants can taste a caterpillar’s saliva. They “sniff” the compounds sent out by nearby damaged plants. Research suggests that some seeds taste or smell smoke, which triggers germination.
The right sound wave may also trigger germination. Sunflowers, like pea plants, seem to increase their growth when they hear sounds similar to but louder than the human speaking voice.
In other ways, flowers and pollinators find each other through sound.
A tropical vine, pollinated by bats, uses a concave petal to reflect the bat’s sonar signal.
The bat calls to the flower. The flower responds.
—Sharman Apt Russell
Anatomy of A Rose: Exploring the Secret Life of Flowers