A flower, sometimes known as a bloom or blossom, is the reproductive structure found in flowering plants (plants of the division Magnoliophyta, also called angiosperms). The biological function of a flower is to effect reproduction, usually by providing a mechanism for the union of sperm with eggs. Flowers may facilitate outcrossing (fusion of sperm and eggs from different individuals in a population) or allow selfing (fusion of sperm and egg from the same flower). Some flowers produce diaspores without fertilization (parthenocarpy). Flowers contain sporangia and are the site where gametophytes develop. Flowers give rise to fruit and seeds. Many flowers have evolved to be attractive to animals, so as to cause them to be vectors for the transfer of pollen.
In addition to facilitating the reproduction of flowering plants, flowers have long been admired and used by humans to beautify their environment, and also as objects of romance, ritual, religion, medicine and as a source of food.
A stereotypical flower consists of four kinds of structures attached to the tip of a short stalk. Each of these kinds of parts is arranged in a whorl on the receptacle. The four main whorls (starting from the base of the flower or lowest node and working upwards) are as follows:
- Calyx: the outermost whorl consisting of units called sepals; these are typically green and enclose the rest of the flower in the bud stage, however, they can be absent or prominent and petal-like in some species.
- Corolla: the next whorl toward the apex, composed of units called petals, which are typically thin, soft and colored to attract animals that help the process of pollination.
- Androecium (from Greek andros oikia: man's house): the next whorl (sometimes multiplied into several whorls), consisting of units called stamens. Stamens consist of two parts: a stalk called a filament, topped by an anther where pollen is produced by meiosis and eventually dispersed.
- Gynoecium (from Greek gynaikos oikia: woman's house): the innermost whorl of a flower, consisting of one or more units called carpels. The carpel or multiple fused carpels form a hollow structure called an ovary, which produces ovules internally. Ovules are megasporangia and they in turn produce megaspores by meiosis which develop into female gametophytes. These give rise to egg cells. The gynoecium of a flower is also described using an alternative terminology wherein the structure one sees in the innermost whorl (consisting of an ovary, style and stigma) is called a pistil. A pistil may consist of a single carpel or a number of carpels fused together. The sticky tip of the pistil, the stigma, is the receptor of pollen. The supportive stalk, the style, becomes the pathway for pollen tubes to grow from pollen grains adhering to the stigma.
Although the arrangement described above is considered "typical", plant species show a wide variation in floral structure. These modifications have significance in the evolution of flowering plants and are used extensively by botanists to establish relationships among plant species.
The four main parts of a flower are generally defined by their positions on the receptacle and not by their function. Many flowers lack some parts or parts may be modified into other functions and/or look like what is typically another part. In some families, like Ranunculaceae, the petals are greatly reduced and in many species the sepals are colorful and petal-like. Other flowers have modified stamens that are petal-like, the double flowers of Peonies and Roses are mostly petaloid stamens. Flowers show great variation and plant scientists describe this variation in a systematic way to identify and distinguish species.
Specific terminology is used to describe flowers and their parts. Many flower parts are fused together; fused parts originating from the same whorl are connate, while fused parts originating from different whorls are adnate, parts that are not fused are free. When petals are fused into a tube or ring that falls away as a single unit, they are sympetalous (also called gamopetalous.) Connate petals may have distinctive regions: the cylindrical base is the tube, the expanding region is the throat and the flaring outer region is the limb. A sympetalous flower, with bilateral symmetry with an upper and lower lip, is bilabiate. Flowers with connate petals or sepals may have various shaped corolla or calyx including: campanulate, funnelform, tubular, urceolate, salverform or rotate.
Referring to "fusion," as it is commonly done, appears questionable because at least some of the processes involved may be non-fusion processes. For example, the addition of intercalary growth at or below the base of the primordia of floral appendages such as sepals, petals, stamens and carpels may lead to a common base that is not the result of fusion.
Many flowers have a symmetry. When the perianth is bisected through the central axis from any point, symmetrical halves are produced, forming a radial symmetry. These flowers are also known to be actinomorphic or regular, e.g. rose or trillium. When flowers are bisected and produce only one line that produces symmetrical halves the flower is said to be irregular or zygomorphic, e.g. snapdragon or most orchids.
Flowers may be directly attached to the plant at their base (sessile—the supporting stalk or stem is highly reduced or absent). The stem or stalk subtending a flower is called a peduncle. If a peduncle supports more than one flower, the stems connecting each flower to the main axis are called pedicels. The apex of a flowering stem forms a terminal swelling which is called the torus or receptacle.
A floral formula is a way to represent the structure of a flower using specific letters, numbers and symbols, presenting substantial information about the flower in a compact form. It can represent a taxon, usually giving ranges of the numbers of different organs, or particular species. Floral formulae have been developed in the early 19th century and their use has declined since. Prenner et al. (2010) devised an extension of the existing model to broaden the descriptive capability of the formula.
The format of floral formulae differs in America and Europe, yet they convey the same information. The formula consists of letters denoting different organs usually followed by their numbers, and of symbols descripting symmetry. The most common symbols include:
|∗||radial symmetry/polysymmetry (actinomorphic flower)|
|↓||monosymmetry (zygomorphic flower)|
|G||gynoecium (carpels); a line denotes the position of ovary: G – superior, G – inferior,
|(…), […]||fused organs|
|+||more than one whorl|
|∞||high or unstable number of organs|
Floral formula of Geranium maculatum as an example: ∗ K5 C5 A5+5 G(5) – polysymmetric flower, 5 sepals, 5 petals, 10 stamens in 2 whorls, pistil fused of 5 carpels with superior ovary.
In those species that have more than one flower on an axis, the collective cluster of flowers is termed an inflorescence. Some inflorescences are composed of many small flowers arranged in a formation that resembles a single flower. The common example of this is most members of the very large composite (Asteraceae) group. A single daisy or sunflower, for example, is not a flower but a flower head—an inflorescence composed of numerous flowers (or florets).
An inflorescence may include specialized stems and modified leaves known as bracts.
A flower develops on a modified shoot or axis from a determinate apical meristem (determinate meaning the axis grows to a set size). It has compressed internodes, bearing structures that in classical plant morphology are interpreted as highly modified leaves. Detailed developmental studies, however, have shown that stamens are often initiated more or less like modified stems (caulomes) that in some cases may even resemble branchlets. Taking into account the whole diversity in the development of the androecium of flowering plants, we find a continuum between modified leaves (phyllomes), modified stems (caulomes), and modified branchlets (shoots).
The transition to flowering is one of the major phase changes that a plant makes during its life cycle. The transition must take place at a time that is favorable for fertilization and the formation of seeds, hence ensuring maximal reproductive success. To meet these needs a plant is able to interpret important endogenous and environmental cues such as changes in levels of plant hormones and seasonable temperature and photoperiod changes. Many perennial and most biennial plants require vernalization to flower. The molecular interpretation of these signals is through the transmission of a complex signal known as florigen, which involves a variety of genes, including CONSTANS, FLOWERING LOCUS C and FLOWERING LOCUS T. Florigen is produced in the leaves in reproductively favorable conditions and acts in buds and growing tips to induce a number of different physiological and morphological changes.
The first step of the transition is the transformation of the vegetative stem primordia into floral primordia. This occurs as biochemical changes take place to change cellular differentiation of leaf, bud and stem tissues into tissue that will grow into the reproductive organs. Growth of the central part of the stem tip stops or flattens out and the sides develop protuberances in a whorled or spiral fashion around the outside of the stem end. These protuberances develop into the sepals, petals, stamens, and carpels. Once this process begins, in most plants, it cannot be reversed and the stems develop flowers, even if the initial start of the flower formation event was dependent of some environmental cue. Once the process begins, even if that cue is removed the stem will continue to develop a flower.
The molecular control of floral organ identity determination appears to be fairly well understood in some species. In a simple model, three gene activities interact in a combinatorial manner to determine the developmental identities of the organ primordia within the floral meristem. These gene functions are called A, B and C-gene functions. In the first floral whorl only A-genes are expressed, leading to the formation of sepals. In the second whorl both A- and B-genes are expressed, leading to the formation of petals. In the third whorl, B and C genes interact to form stamens and in the center of the flower C-genes alone give rise to carpels. The model is based upon studies of homeotic mutants in Arabidopsis thaliana and snapdragon, Antirrhinum majus. For example, when there is a loss of B-gene function, mutant flowers are produced with sepals in the first whorl as usual, but also in the second whorl instead of the normal petal formation. In the third whorl the lack of B function but presence of C-function mimics the fourth whorl, leading to the formation of carpels also in the third whorl. See also The ABC Model of Flower Development.
The principal purpose of a flower is the reproduction of the individual and the species. All flowering plants are heterosporous, producing two types of spores. Microspores are produced by meiosis inside anthers while megaspores are produced inside ovules, inside an ovary. In fact, anthers typically consist of four microsporangia and an ovule is an integumented megasporangium. Both types of spores develop into gametophytes inside sporangia. As with all heterosporous plants, the gametophytes also develop inside the spores (are endosporic).
In the majority of species, individual flowers have both functional carpels and stamens. Botanists describe these flowers as being perfect or bisexual and the species as hermaphroditic. Some flowers lack one or the other reproductive organ and called imperfect or unisexual If unisex flowers are found on the same individual plant but in different locations, the species is said to be monoecious. If each type of unisex flower is found only on separate individuals, the plant is dioecious.
Flower specialization and pollination
Flowering plants usually face selective pressure to optimize the transfer of their pollen, and this is typically reflected in the morphology of the flowers and the behaviour of the plants. Pollen may be transferred between plants via a number of 'vectors'. Some plants make use of abiotic vectors — namely wind (anemophily) or, much less commonly, water (hydrophily). Others use biotic vectors including insects (entomophily), birds (ornithophily), bats (chiropterophily) or other animals. Some plants make use of multiple vectors, but many are highly specialised.
Cleistogamous flowers are self-pollinated, after which they may or may not open. Many Viola and some Salvia species are known to have these types of flowers.
The flowers of plants that make use of biotic pollen vectors commonly have glands called nectaries that act as an incentive for animals to visit the flower. Some flowers have patterns, called nectar guides, that show pollinators where to look for nectar. Flowers also attract pollinators by scent and color. Still other flowers use mimicry to attract pollinators. Some species of orchids, for example, produce flowers resembling female bees in color, shape, and scent. Flowers are also specialized in shape and have an arrangement of the stamens that ensures that pollen grains are transferred to the bodies of the pollinator when it lands in search of its attractant (such as nectar, pollen, or a mate). In pursuing this attractant from many flowers of the same species, the pollinator transfers pollen to the stigmas—arranged with equally pointed precision—of all of the flowers it visits.
Anemophilous flowers use the wind to move pollen from one flower to the next. Examples include grasses, birch trees, ragweed and maples. They have no need to attract pollinators and therefore tend not to be "showy" flowers. Male and female reproductive organs are generally found in separate flowers, the male flowers having a number of long filaments terminating in exposed stamens, and the female flowers having long, feather-like stigmas. Whereas the pollen of animal-pollinated flowers tends to be large-grained, sticky, and rich in protein (another "reward" for pollinators), anemophilous flower pollen is usually small-grained, very light, and of little nutritional value to animals.
The primary purpose of a flower is reproduction. Since the flowers are the reproductive organs of plant, they mediate the joining of the sperm, contained within pollen, to the ovules — contained in the ovary. Pollination is the movement of pollen from the anthers to the stigma. The joining of the sperm to the ovules is called fertilization. Normally pollen is moved from one plant to another, but many plants are able to self pollinate. The fertilized ovules produce seeds that are the next generation. Sexual reproduction produces genetically unique offspring, allowing for adaptation. Flowers have specific designs which encourages the transfer of pollen from one plant to another of the same species. Many plants are dependent upon external factors for pollination, including: wind and animals, and especially insects. Even large animals such as birds, bats, and pygmy possums can be employed. The period of time during which this process can take place (the flower is fully expanded and functional) is called anthesis.
Plants cannot move from one location to another, thus many flowers have evolved to attract animals to transfer pollen between individuals in dispersed populations. Flowers that are insect-pollinated are called entomophilous; literally "insect-loving" in Greek. They can be highly modified along with the pollinating insects by co-evolution. Flowers commonly have glands called nectaries on various parts that attract animals looking for nutritious nectar. Birds and bees have color vision, enabling them to seek out "colorful" flowers.
Some flowers have patterns, called nectar guides, that show pollinators where to look for nectar; they may be visible only under ultraviolet light, which is visible to bees and some other insects. Flowers also attract pollinators by scent and some of those scents are pleasant to our sense of smell. Not all flower scents are appealing to humans; a number of flowers are pollinated by insects that are attracted to rotten flesh and have flowers that smell like dead animals, often called Carrion flowers, including Rafflesia, the titan arum, and the North American pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Flowers pollinated by night visitors, including bats and moths, are likely to concentrate on scent to attract pollinators and most such flowers are white.
Other flowers use mimicry to attract pollinators. Some species of orchids, for example, produce flowers resembling female bees in color, shape, and scent. Male bees move from one such flower to another in search of a mate.
The pollination mechanism employed by a plant depends on what method of pollination is utilized.
Most flowers can be divided between two broad groups of pollination methods:
Entomophilous: flowers attract and use insects, bats, birds or other animals to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. Often they are specialized in shape and have an arrangement of the stamens that ensures that pollen grains are transferred to the bodies of the pollinator when it lands in search of its attractant (such as nectar, pollen, or a mate). In pursuing this attractant from many flowers of the same species, the pollinator transfers pollen to the stigmas—arranged with equally pointed precision—of all of the flowers it visits. Many flowers rely on simple proximity between flower parts to ensure pollination. Others, such as the Sarracenia or lady-slipper orchids, have elaborate designs to ensure pollination while preventing self-pollination.
Anemophilous: flowers use the wind to move pollen from one flower to the next, examples include the grasses, Birch trees, Ragweed and Maples. They have no need to attract pollinators and therefore tend not to be "showy" flowers. Whereas the pollen of entomophilous flowers tends to be large-grained, sticky, and rich in protein (another "reward" for pollinators), anemophilous flower pollen is usually small-grained, very light, and of little nutritional value to insects, though it may still be gathered in times of dearth. Honeybees and bumblebees actively gather anemophilous corn (maize) pollen, though it is of little value to them.
Some flowers are self-pollinated and use flowers that never open or are self-pollinated before the flowers open, these flowers are called cleistogamous. Many Viola species and some Salvia have these types of flowers.
Many flowers have close relationships with one or a few specific pollinating organisms. Many flowers, for example, attract only one specific species of insect, and therefore rely on that insect for successful reproduction. This close relationship is often given as an example of coevolution, as the flower and pollinator are thought to have developed together over a long period of time to match each other's needs.
This close relationship compounds the negative effects of extinction. The extinction of either member in such a relationship would mean almost certain extinction of the other member as well. Some endangered plant species are so because of shrinking pollinator populations.
Fertilization and dispersal
Some flowers with both stamens and a pistil are capable of self-fertilization, which does increase the chance of producing seeds but limits genetic variation. The extreme case of self-fertilization occurs in flowers that always self-fertilize, such as many dandelions. Conversely, many species of plants have ways of preventing self-fertilization. Unisexual male and female flowers on the same plant may not appear or mature at the same time, or pollen from the same plant may be incapable of fertilizing its ovules. The latter flower types, which have chemical barriers to their own pollen, are referred to as self-sterile or self-incompatible.
While land plants have existed for about 425 million years, the first ones reproduced by a simple adaptation of their aquatic counterparts: spores. In the sea, plants—and some animals—can simply scatter out genetic clones of themselves to float away and grow elsewhere. This is how early plants reproduced. But plants soon evolved methods of protecting these copies to deal with drying out and other abuse which is even more likely on land than in the sea. The protection became the seed, though it had not yet evolved the flower. Early seed-bearing plants include the ginkgo and conifers. The earliest fossil of a flowering plant, Archaefructus liaoningensis, is dated about 125 million years old.
Several groups of extinct gymnosperms, particularly seed ferns, have been proposed as the ancestors of flowering plants but there is no continuous fossil evidence showing exactly how flowers evolved. The apparently sudden appearance of relatively modern flowers in the fossil record posed such a problem for the theory of evolution that it was called an "abominable mystery" by Charles Darwin. Recently discovered angiosperm fossils such as Archaefructus, along with further discoveries of fossil gymnosperms, suggest how angiosperm characteristics may have been acquired in a series of steps.
Recent DNA analysis (molecular systematics) shows that Amborella trichopoda, found on the Pacific island of New Caledonia, is the sister group to the rest of the flowering plants, and morphological studies suggest that it has features which may have been characteristic of the earliest flowering plants.
The general assumption is that the function of flowers, from the start, was to involve animals in the reproduction process. Pollen can be scattered without bright colors and obvious shapes, which would therefore be a liability, using the plant's resources, unless they provide some other benefit. One proposed reason for the sudden, fully developed appearance of flowers is that they evolved in an isolated setting like an island, or chain of islands, where the plants bearing them were able to develop a highly specialized relationship with some specific animal (a wasp, for example), the way many island species develop today. This symbiotic relationship, with a hypothetical wasp bearing pollen from one plant to another much the way fig wasps do today, could have eventually resulted in both the plant(s) and their partners developing a high degree of specialization. Island genetics is believed to be a common source of speciation, especially when it comes to radical adaptations which seem to have required inferior transitional forms. Note that the wasp example is not incidental; bees, apparently evolved specifically for symbiotic plant relationships, are descended from wasps.
Likewise, most fruit used in plant reproduction comes from the enlargement of parts of the flower. This fruit is frequently a tool which depends upon animals wishing to eat it, and thus scattering the seeds it contains.
While many such symbiotic relationships remain too fragile to survive competition with mainland organisms, flowers proved to be an unusually effective means of production, spreading (whatever their actual origin) to become the dominant form of land plant life.
While there is only hard proof of such flowers existing about 130 million years ago, there is some circumstantial evidence that they did exist up to 250 million years ago. A chemical used by plants to defend their flowers, oleanane, has been detected in fossil plants that old, including gigantopterids, which evolved at that time and bear many of the traits of modern, flowering plants, though they are not known to be flowering plants themselves, because only their stems and prickles have been found preserved in detail; one of the earliest examples of petrification.
The similarity in leaf and stem structure can be very important, because flowers are genetically just an adaptation of normal leaf and stem components on plants, a combination of genes normally responsible for forming new shoots. The most primitive flowers are thought to have had a variable number of flower parts, often separate from (but in contact with) each other. The flowers would have tended to grow in a spiral pattern, to be bisexual (in plants, this means both male and female parts on the same flower), and to be dominated by the ovary (female part). As flowers grew more advanced, some variations developed parts fused together, with a much more specific number and design, and with either specific sexes per flower or plant, or at least "ovary inferior".
Flower evolution continues to the present day; modern flowers have been so profoundly influenced by humans that many of them cannot be pollinated in nature. Many modern, domesticated flowers used to be simple weeds, which only sprouted when the ground was disturbed. Some of them tended to grow with human crops, and the prettiest did not get plucked because of their beauty, developing a dependence upon and special adaptation to human affection.