Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"Flowers, Fruits, and You"

Here is an article shared within the Leeflet Newsletter Winter 2014 from the League of Environmental Educators in Florida~

Do you enjoy foods such as pasta, cakes, and cookies? Perhaps you prefer fresh fruits, vegetables, or meats? Regardless of what your favorite foods are, they almost certainly come from the most diverse group of plants in the world: angiosperms, which are also known as flowering plants. The word angiosperm means “encased seed” and refers to the fruits that are deliciously unique to this group of plants. These plants are relatively recent additions to our planet. In fact, if you were to travel back in time to the age of the early dinosaurs, you would not find any angiosperms at all. The forests would have appeared as swathes of uninterrupted greens and browns. There were tall trees with exposed seeds, shady ferns, and fuzzy mosses with spores, but no flowers or fruits.

Then suddenly, around 130 million years ago, flowers and fruits exploded onto the scene and spread around the globe at a record pace. Their seeds were enclosed in fruits of all shapes and sizes, some equipped with wings to travel on the wind or flotation devices to navigate on the water, while others boasted fleshy and tasty tissues to attract animals to disperse them far and wide. Not only had they harnessed the power of animals, wind, and water, but they provided new, concentrated sources of food for animals around the world. Flowers became increasingly specialized for attracting animals to do pollination work for them, mixing their genes quite effectively. Insects and mammals began to co-evolve with flowering plants to take advantage of nectar, pollen, and fruit as food. Eventually, human civilizations began farming flowering plants to feed growing populations.

Flowers themselves are beloved around the world for their beauty, but often their purpose is overlooked by casual observers in our modern society. Flowers spread pollen between plants, thus accomplishing sexual reproduction. Some flowers are wind-pollinated and let pollen drift in the breeze, hopefully finding its way to another plant. Other flowers are pollinated by insects or birds attracted to their brilliant colors or sweet nectar. These creatures then fly to other plants of the same species, efficiently spreading pollen from plant to plant. After a flower is pollinated, it produces seeds which contain genes from its own plant and from the plant that provided the pollen. A fruit develops around the seed and serves as a nutrition packet to help it survive when it begins its journey to find a place to grow.

Today, almost all of the food we eat comes from flowering plants. Even meat comes from animals that were fed grass, corn, or other flowering plants as food. Interestingly, the fruit of flowering plants is more common in our diets than you might realize: rice, wheat, corn, cocoa beans, squash, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, beans, oats, nuts, and countless other foods are all fruits! If a food houses the seeds of a plant, it’s most likely a fruit. Aside from our nutritional needs, flowers and fruits are a dominant source of food for wildlife around the world.

At Big Cypress National Preserve you can find a cornucopia of fascinating plants, making it the perfect place to spend some time exploring our flowers and fruits. While the famous bald cypress tree is a conifer rather than a flowering plant, within the forests of Big Cypress are over 1,200 different types of flowering plants! Among these are 41 different types of orchids, which are some of the world’s most complex flowers. Some orchids are even equipped with trap doors, slippery slopes, and disguises designed to trick insects into pollinating them. Decorating the trunks of the cypress trees are 16 types of air plants, which are members of the pineapple family and speckle the swamps with brilliant reds and purples each spring when they flower. Our prairies are dotted with white swamp lilies in the summer and wispy, purple muhly grass flowers in the fall. Throughout the year, a symphony of colors and shapes seems to arise out of the green as fruits and flowers put on a show, free of charge.

The next time you are exploring, be it outside or even at the grocery store, take a second look at the fruits and the flowers you come across and remember that these colorful delights have changed the face our planet in many ways.

Many lessons or activities related to botany, biodiversity, agriculture, or farming can be started by
helping learners better understand flowering plants and their importance. You can use the short article
below to introduce these topics. In addition, you can find existing curricula or materials by searching the Resources section of the LEEF website