Just stop for a minute, after looking at the lovely images of wild flowers now blooming at Rhebokskloof, and ask yourself this simple question: “Why should I find these colours and shapes beautiful and attractive?” Why is the eye immediately drawn to shape and colour, where there was nothing days before? Could there be any advantage to humans that are attracted to beauty, as opposed to those that simply take nature for granted?
Through the ages man has admired, collected and painted the flower. The answer may not be as simple as one thinks, and comprises of a number of disciplines: physics, aesthetics, science and, as mentioned, art. The first impression, that of symmetry appeals to the human eye, but it is colour that draws us to flowers, primarily. As humans, we take delight in beautiful objects, as opposed to animals that experience their world primarily in terms of food, water, mating, shelter and the avoidance of predators.
Light from the sun, composed of the true colours of the rainbow, strikes an object and reflects it back to the eye in either pure colour, say blue or red, or in salient mixtures of these primary colours, such as browns and yellows. Our appreciation of colour is further expanded to other objects such as stones and the colour of the sky, for instance. And now we come to the crux of the matter: beauty to humans, and “beauty” to insects, that pollinate and sometimes even eat these blossoms, are two totally different matters.
Let us consider insects first. Through evolution, a mutually beneficial relationship has developed between plant and their pollinating insects. One needs to go no further than to look at honeybees at work. The very first attraction to any bee is colour. Bees are dispatched from the hive to look for sources of nectar and pollen. What better way for the flower to make sure it is visited, than to display vivid colour, with white and yellow being the most effective hues. Once the bee lands, it is rewarded with high-energy nectar, the basis of honey, and pollen, which is used to make propolis.
But, plants have yet another trick up their colourful sleeves: smell. The wonderful ways in which plants advertise themselves know no limits. The sweet smelling plants have another suite of insects that do the job of pollination – the butterflies and moths. Most plant advertising in this band has a highly specific pollinator, and the shape of the flower is finely tuned to accommodate just one insect, and the flower architecture is adapted to optimize pollination. The combination of shape, colour and smell is highly optimized to ensure the continued survival of the plant.
But what about humans? Why are we so strongly attracted to the lovely shapes and colours? I argue that our love for flowers is mainly cultural. Try to cast your mind back to your youth, when your parents first introduced you to flowers. As a tiny baby you were held near the rose, the honeysuckle and the jasmine, and told about its marvels. Small wonder then that different cultures hold specific flowers dear, and a good example is the Japanese with their deep love of the chrysanthemum. More examples are the English, with their rose and peony culture, the Americans with magnolias, and the French, with fields of lavender.
Spring is the time to celebrate out unique South African flower culture, our love of the veld and its coat of many colours. This is the time to visit Rhebokskloof, not only for its unique and superb wines, but also for its granite outcrops covered with of the finest fynbos to be found in the Cape. Take your family and friends, and celebrate our unique flower culture.