Our vanishing flowers

Although the wind-pollinated cereal crops — including rice, wheat, maize and barley — keep the world’s 7.2 billion people from starvation, the colorful fruits and berries we relish keep us healthy and happy. Given a choice, who would prefer a bland, starchy maintenance diet? We can’t forget that the fruits and seeds of wildflowers, shrubs and trees also feed many of the world’s herbivorous wildlife, from Chesapeake Bay northern cardinals to African hornbills, along with fat bears, skunks, bats and even crocodiles. This is the vital link between flowers and food for many animals — including us.

Flowers and fruits are the basis for many medicines, while providing cotton, flax fibers and beverages. Roses, jasmine and ylang-ylang contribute their fragrant molecules as ingredients in the world’s costliest perfumes. Cut flowers are a multibillion-dollar industry. It’s becoming ever more apparent that we need flowers to maintain our health, our food supply, and for our happiness and mental abilities. Flowers also make us smile; they lift our spirits. Psychological studies indicate that floral scents may enhance long-term memory formation.

But now we are losing many flowering plants to extinction before we even knew they existed. An estimated 68 percent of the world’s flowering plants are now threatened or endangered. This staggering loss of diversity is due to anthropogenic causes, including habitat loss, degradation and invasive species.