Culture News

Stephen Buchmann on The Reason for Flowers and His Favorite Cacti

“If flowers hadn’t evolved, humans might not have existed.”

It’s a bold statement, but one Stephen Buchmann isn’t afraid to make. The University of Arizona professor, entomologist, and author has devoted his life studying the intimate biology of bees and flowers, but he looks at the big picture in his upcoming book The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives. He’ll read from his book at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 23, at Changing Hands Bookstore

Flowers might seem like a purely aesthetic pleasure, but Buchmann disagrees. 

“I’ve been waiting to write this kind of book my whole life… We take flowers for granted and don’t truly understand what they are,” he says. “Obviously, the real reason for flowers is sex. They’re reproductive organs, so you can think of them as miniature billboards advertising to their faithful go-betweens — insects and other pollinating animals — to move their pollen around. To us, flowers use their beauty, shape, and scents to attract, not only pollinators, but also us.”

Buchmann points out that flowers seem to have domesticated humans into caring for, preserving, and extolling them. It’s not a bad thing though, and he’s audibly delighted when he talks about flowers, whether it comes to buzz pollination — when bees use their bodies as tuning forks to make flowers release their pollen — or photographing flowers in his backyard.

This same enthusiasm and intense curiosity about the world gives The Reason for Flowers its sense of joy. Buchmann has been passionate about pollination since his teenage years. Through his eyes, flowers have a storied and vibrant history that directly informs our lives, and though his primary experience is in pollination, the book covers a huge range of topics, from flowers in mythology and food recipes, to the industry of funeral homes and international trade.

“It doesn’t make sense that so many flowers grown all over the world get boxed up and flown to the Amsterdam Flower Auction," he says, "are bought and sold, and then stored in cold rooms in atmosphere and temperature-controlled rooms. You can have roses grown in Columbia that either make their way to the Miami Airport or go to Amsterdam, and then turn right around, and maybe they’re headed to Europe or South Africa — who knows where! Think about the irony of the some of the most perishable items you can imagine, and yet they have this intense carbon footprint.”

The Reason for Flowers is full of these kinds of contradictions: that flowers are both delicate, miraculous wonders and objects of a $20 billion global industry. They’re both central to ancient myths and contemporary breeders. They’re for both the living and the dead. The scale of it all is staggering, but Buchmann’s deft, conversational writing is backed by research that navigates it all with sincerity and grace.

While he writes from a global perspective, Buchmann also likes to discover the flora in his own backyard. He’ll go outside and sit quietly, observing flowers and the animals that visit them. He’s impressed by the exuberant, flashy flowers in international flower markets, but he says his favorite ones are much closer to home.

“I’ll often go out to Picacho Peak or the Tucson Mountains, or even around the Catalina Foothills, close to where I live. [My favorite to photograph are] two night blooming flowers: the Datura, the angel’s trumpet, a big, white, moth-pollinated thing which some people would consider a weed, but some people that have it in their gardens. There's a new trend for people to put in moonlight or fragrance gardens, which are pretty cool. And the queen of the night, Peniocereus greggii—there are probably 400 plants at Tohono Chul Park in Tucson. I was really upset – my wife and I were in Colorado this year when they bloomed, and so we missed them by a day.”

And for Phoenix gardeners who want to work on their green thumb, while honoring sustainable, local flowers?

“I would encourage people to visit their local gardens or local flower markets," he says. "Especially the flower markets and big garden shows are things that, unless you’re really into it, most people wouldn’t visit.

"And definitely say go for cacti! Many of my favorite flowers are cactus. They’re just showstoppers. My favorites are Trichocereus, which are the torch cacti, and they bloom around Easter-time in Tucson and Phoenix. They’re just magnificent. The flowers can be a foot tall and eight inches wide. Pinks and oranges and whites and yellows, and they have just this huge bud... I’ve never met a cactus bloom that I didn’t like.”

For more information about Stephen Buchmann's reading, see the Changing Hands event page. The Reason for Flowers will be published July 21.

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Stephanie Chen