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A science teacher explains: Why do flowers have a scent?

Not all flowers emit fragrance, there is also the corpse flower whose smell can make one recoil with disgust as it is an amalgamation of a rotten fish, smelly feet, and a dead body, designed to attract its carnivorous pollinators.

A science teacher explains, flowers, smell of flowers, why do flowers smell, flowers odor, pollination, parenting, indian express newsWise people often counsel, 'Stop and smell the roses'. This is not just an idiom advising us to slow down and appreciate the beauty of our existence; science has proved the smell of roses can calm you down. (Photo: Pixabay)

By Rachna Arora

Flowers are harbingers of joy. They are a universal expression of love, solidarity, and success, and whether a happy occasion like a wedding or a solemn one like a funeral, flowers form an integral part of key life moments.

Are flowers trying to impress us with their vivid colours and sweet fragrance? Hardly! The beauty of a flower sheathed in colour and perfume is primarily a means to procreate, invite potential pollinators like bees, birds, and insects, for nectar and pollen, and transfer pollen from one flower to another resulting in fertilisation. More than the colour and form, it is the scent of a flower that attracts the pollinators. That is why, most plant species, except for those which are pollinated by wind, produce scent.

The fragrance in a flower emanates from tiny glands present on the underside of petals and is a characteristic property of a plant. The scent is typically a complex mixture of low molecular weight compounds emitted into the atmosphere. As these compounds are light, they can easily float and land on our noses, exposing us to floral aromas. The diversity of these volatile chemicals and their relative abundances and interactions is responsible for giving the flowers their distinctive perfume.

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The smell emitted by flowers is especially aimed at attracting insects that pollinate them.  Also, plants tend to have their scents at a maximum level only when flowers are ready for pollination and their potential pollinators are active as well. Flowers like jasmine, evening primrose, and cestrum (Raat ki Rani) which are pollinated by nocturnal moths and bats emit more fragrance at night, whereas flowers like tuberose, rose and lavender for whom bees and butterflies are the primary pollinators produce more fragrance in the daytime. Species pollinated by flies and bees have sweet scents whereas those pollinated by beetles have strong musty, spicy, or fruity smell.

Not all flowers emit fragrance, there is also the corpse flower whose smell can make one recoil with disgust as it is an amalgamation of a rotten fish, smelly feet, and a dead body, designed to attract its carnivorous pollinators, carrion beetles, and flesh flies. This flower takes about 7-10 years to bloom, and the bloom lasts for 24-36 hours only.

Although, to date, little is known of how insects respond to individual components found within floral scents, they are capable of distinguishing complex scent mixtures and are guided into only those flowers they are designated to pollinate.

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It has been established that during flower development, newly-opened and young flowers which are not ready to function as pollen donors produce few odors and are less attractive to pollinators than older flowers. Once the flower has sufficiently contributed with pollen and nectar, they become less attractive and the mantle for proliferation passes on to younger flowers thus maximising the reproductive success of the plant.

Today, essential oils extracted from plants are used in candles, lotions, incense, diffusers, and perfumes. These not only help to lighten and brighten our mood, but also help by boosting feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.

Wise people often counsel, ‘Stop and smell the roses’. This is not just an idiom advising us to slow down and appreciate the beauty of our existence; science has proved the smell of roses has a mystic ability to calm you down. There is sufficient evidence to support that rose scent gives our brain a boost aiding in information retention and enduring learning. This study gives credence to the fact that the rose is the most loved flower in the world and Chanel number 5, which primarily smells of roses, is the most popular fragrance in the world. A lavender bubble bath helps us unwind after a long day and an orange candle adds zest to life.

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Although rigorous research is needed to account for the effect of floral aromas on human psychology and cognitive skills, it is irrefutable that flowers and their fragrance delight us in varied ways.

“A flower’s appeal is in its contradictions — so delicate in form yet strong in fragrance, so small in size yet big in beauty, so short in life yet long in effect.”

(The writer is PGT- Physics at Shiv Nadar School, Noida.)

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First published on: 29-11-2022 at 12:40 IST
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