Interview: Stephen Buchmann, Author Of 'The Reason For Flowers' They're billboards for sexual favors, says ecologist Stephen Buchmann. But get your minds out of the dirt: We're talking pollination — and it's played a surprising role in global trade and history.
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Birds, Bees And The Power Of Sex Appeal: The Ribald Lives Of Flowers

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Birds, Bees And The Power Of Sex Appeal: The Ribald Lives Of Flowers

Birds, Bees And The Power Of Sex Appeal: The Ribald Lives Of Flowers

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Flowers, bugs and bees - Stephen Buchmann has wanted to study them all since he was a kid.

STEPHEN BUCHMANN: I never grew out of my bug-and-dinosaur phase. So you know, since about the third grade, I decided I wanted to chase insects, especially bees, started keeping bees in high school.

RATH: Now Buchmann is a pollination ecologist particularly interested in how flowers attract insects. That might sound like a niche, but Buchmann says flowers and pollination make life as we know it possible. He explains, in his fascinating book, "The Reason For Flowers."

BUCHMANN: The reason for flowers is actually one word - sex. So flowers are literally living scented billboards that are advertising for sexual favors, whether those are from bees, flies, beetles, butterflies or us because quite frankly, most of the flowers in the world have gotten us to do their bidding. But that's only the first stage because - right? - flowers, if they're lucky, turn into fruits. And those fruits and seeds feed the world.

RATH: It's extraordinary, in this book, the diversity here because it's not just birds and bees. There are beetles, flies, lizards, and the beetles seem like they really like to party.

BUCHMANN: They do. One of my favorite memories is in the - roaming the Napa foothills as a UC Davis grad student. And I would go to the wineries, of course, and then in between, I would go find western spice bush, which is this marvelous flower that kind of smells like a blend between a Cabernet and rotten fruit. And when you find those flowers and open them up, you discover, literally, dozens of beetles in there, mating, defecating, pollinating, have a grand - having a grand time.

RATH: Let's talk about the flower supply chain now because you get into that, and it's vast and pretty amazing. So say I'm in Manhattan, you know, in the flower district around 28th Street.

BUCHMANN: Right.

RATH: All those amazing flowers - where are they coming from?

BUCHMANN: Wow. They're coming from around the world. Domestically in the U.S., we probably raise only about 30 percent of our flowers, and those are coming from California and Florida. But you know, globally, there are about 15 billion stems per year. And in the U.S., we buy about 4 billion cut stems a year, maybe 10 million flowers per day. But the vast majority of the flowers that we find in our big-box stores or farmers markets are pretty much coming from Columbia and Ecuador, followed by Costa Rica.

And virtually all of those are coming into the Miami International Airport. So you may not realize it when you're flying in, but below your feet in the cargo hold, there's some perishable flowers as cargo. And they're also coming in in airplanes, jumbo jets that are totally stripped - no seats and just crammed with boxed flowers. They have a huge carbon footprint. Millions and millions of them are inspected, bought and sold and then get back on a plane to go somewhere else in the world.

RATH: I kept thinking about how it's wild how, you know, we're attracted to some of the same things that other animals are, like our sense of maybe what is sweet or what's pretty. Obviously, that must be kind of the same because we like these things too.

BUCHMANN: Exactly. Floral beauty has beguiled us along with the birds and the bees. Flowers come in a myriad of shapes, colors, scents and sizes. But they seem to have almost universal appeal. And every culture that I researched has a love for flowers. And I mean, we use them for - obviously in the decorative and fine arts and prose and poetry. I mean, we don't really have petroglyphs about flowers. Those are usually big, fierce game animals. But you know, going back to 13,000 years ago with the Natufian culture in Israel, there, we find, Mount Carmel in Israel, the first seemingly genuine burials where flowers were used extensively when they buried their dead.

RATH: Stephen Buchmann is the author of the new book "The Reason For Flowers," and we have barely scratched the surface of the amazing things that flowers are capable of that you get to in this book. Stephen, thank you so much.

BUCHMANN: You're quite welcome. I've enjoyed our time together.

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