That people around the world find flowers beautiful is unquestionable, but we understand surprisingly little about why this is so. Scientists remain puzzled by phytophilia - the human love of flowers.
The habitat selection theory proposes that attraction to flowers was an adaptive trait of such benefit it has now become hard-wired in us. Our ancestors' survival depended on their ability to choose safe and abundant places to live and a wide variety of flowers advertises a rich habitat and the likelihood of edible fruits and tubers.
Flower signs had to be visible from a distance, which probably explains why most people show a preference for clear, vivid colours. Blue is the most popular flower colour across almost all cultures. This might be because blue is the least common colour for flora and fauna and therefore easy to spot, or it might be because we subconsciously associate blue with clean water and sunny skies - people also tend to rate birds with blue feathers as more attractive than birds of other colours.
Maroon, olive green and brown flowers are generally the least preferred, probably because of the subconscious association between these colours and rotting vegetation. More mysterious is the reason why yellow also tends to score comparatively low on people's flower colour preferences.
Some colour preferences definitely include a cultural component. For example, people living in Asian countries report an unusually high preference for white flowers, associating them with serenity and purity, particularly in the context of religious rituals. In Western Europe and the USA women report an unusually high preference for pastel shades such as pink and lilac - colours we are conditioned to associate with femininity and prettiness.
However, a 2006 study by Czech scientists revealed that shape influences our flower preferences even more strongly than colour. This mirrors findings about human beauty - in most cultures bone structure and facial symmetry have greater impact than colouring on perceived attractiveness.
When it comes to the shape of a flower, people generally like a soft, rounded outline of medium complexity. Sharp, jagged shapes seem to evoke ancient, subconscious feelings of wariness (think thorns, horns, spikes and canines). Convoluted and irregular shapes are disliked because they cannot easily be identified and categorised by the brain, whilst very simple shapes are perceived as plain boring. This could explain why the rose, the lily, the peony and the tulip dominate the popularity charts, consistently reported as more beautiful than say, the thistle at one end of the spectrum (spiky and complex) and the daisy at the other (simple and unstimulating).
A third factor in our flower preference is perfume. When we are drawn to a flower's shape and colour, fragrance amplifies our liking - people almost always rate a scented rose above one with little fragrance. However, scent on its own is rarely enough to influence overall preference. Although favourite reported scents include lavender, honeysuckle, hyacinth, lilac and violet, few people rank these flowers as among the most attractive. In 2016 2,000 people in the UK were asked to identify their favourite three flowers. The results were as follows:
Participants' familiarity with different flowers was variable and inevitably impacted results. Given the universal popularity of blue flowers, we might expect to see delphiniums or meconopsis on the list were more people familiar with them and able to name them.
Emeritus Professor Jonathan Edwards of University College London, whose research has focused on the biophysical basis of conscious experience, ponders the question of flowers and beauty:
'Why (have) we evolved a sense that some things are beautiful, regardless of usefulness? And what makes flowers, in general terms, more beautiful than berries? My suspicion is that flowers have a complexity and specificity of shape/structure, each one rather different from another. For symbiosis this may be important too, because insects may have evolved to harvest from the same shape flower consistently over a period - ensuring species-specific pollination. For fruit, salience (prominence) is all that is needed to encourage the bird to eat and distribute the seed.
So that suggests that any 'special' beauty of flowers may relate to intricacy, specificity and perhaps consistency in shape. Gardeners revel in the subtle variations in form of their flowers, the delicacy and symmetry of the white jasmine, the voluptuousness of the paeony, the precision of a clematis star. And my suggestion for why these appear more beautiful than pebbles is that we wonder at them because they appear to have required such mastery in their creation. To build a crocus flower out of such fragile material is a miraculous feat...
My suspicion is that a lot of flower preference (also) comes with sentimental association. I like the Frencham rose because my mother grew them.'(1)
I second Professor Edwards's last point. Even when she was alive, no garden of mine felt complete without the little rosy-pink buds of my Mum's favourite Albertine rose or her sky-blue delphiniums - now these flowers are a link back to her and to the garden of my childhood home. Velvety-purple irises, English lavender and soft coppery geums remind me of my lovely Grandad's Norwich garden. See the 'snowballs' of viburnum opulus and I'm seven again and playing hide-and-seek on a hot, sunny afternoon at my Godmother's. And a whiff of mock-orange blossom transports me back to happy days in my twenties in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where a wonderful philadelphus Virginal drenched our front porch in scent.
If this has set you thinking, you might enjoy Dr Rupert Sheldrake's talk 'Why Is There So Much Beauty In The World?'
Which flowers do you love and why are they your favourites?
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
(1)Researchgate: Why Do Humans Perceive Flowers As Beautiful Or Attractive?
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019
Photograph via Pinterest; photographer unknown.