If it weren’t for flowers, we wouldn’t be here. They are an essential element of our ecosystem. “Even among scientists, people don’t appreciate the importance of flowers,” said William C. Burger, Curator Emeritus at the Field Museum. Burger is coming to Centuries and Sleuths on April 23, at 2 p.m., to discuss his new book “Flowers How They Changed the World.” In an example of promotional cross-pollination, other Forest Park businesses are helping publicize Burger’s appearance.
M2 partner Quitsch Florist will be passing out carnations to those who attend Burger’s talk. Dixie Paugh feels strongly about flowers, not just as a source of income but as an ally in the fight against global warming. She wouldn’t be adverse to rooftop gardens in Forest Park if it would help insulate buildings and pull some carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
McAdam Landscaping is providing plants to decorate the bookstore’s window for Burger’s appearance. “The purpose of a plant is to produce flowers,” said Carol Goddard, Marketing Director for McAdam, “We’re providing an assortment of bulb plants and annuals. They’ll be arranged in the window by Moss Modern Flowers.”
Moss is also bringing an assortment of edible flowers to the bookstore. “We’re providing ornamental pineapple, artichokes and wheat grass,” said Owner Chris Geoghegan, “As well as edible roses and orchids.” Not that customers will be snacking on nasturtiums.
“We’re going to display these flowers like specimens,” said Geoghegan.
Specimens would be a familiar form for Burger, who has spent decades cataloguing flora in faraway places like Ethiopia and Costa Rica. Burger, who is a botanist by training, got the idea for writing his book after delivering a well-received speech about the crucial importance of flowers.
“Many people appreciate flowers,” said Burger, “But they don’t know how they work.”
In his book, Burger shares his vast knowledge in easy to read chapters like “What Are Flowers For?” with its racy subsection “What’s So Great About Sex?”
“I try to address questions people have about flowers,” Burger said, noting that it took him three years to complete the work. His previous book, “Perfect Planet, Clever Species” also examined the dynamic and inter-dependent relationship between man and nature.
After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, with his doctorate, Burger spent four years in Ethiopia teaching plant science.
He thoroughly enjoyed spending the years 1961-65 ensconced at an elevation of 2,000 feet, in a temperate climate. Not that Burger wasn’t acutely aware of that country’s agricultural struggles. Ethiopian farmers depend on a rainy season to offset the yearly drought. When the rains fail to come, starvation spreads.
Burger later found himself in more lush surroundings, when he was assigned to catalogue flowering plants and ferns in Costa Rica.
“The Field Museum has specimens from around the world,” Burger explained, “The museum publishes encyclopedic-like catalogues of plant life for these countries.”
Burger’s interest in flowers is not strictly academic. He sees them as being the foundation and possible salvation of society.
“Without flowers, we wouldn’t have the varieties of insects and mammals we have. In fact, human beings wouldn’t be here without flowers.”
He traces their importance back to primeval times.
“When humans were hunter/gatherers, they suffered starvation,” Burger said, “Agriculture saved the human race. No major civilization has existed without growing grains or beans. These crops also allowed people to raise livestock.”
Indeed, flowers are “the building blocks of civilization,” according to Burger.
Now, modern civilization is facing the threat of global warming, Burger said.
“We have to become more careful with out resources,” Burger said, “We’re over-fishing the oceans and creating urban sprawl on the land. Our houses are getting larger and larger. We’re using too much energy and not doing a good job of preserving our natural resources.” Global warming is even more of a concern to Burger now that China and India are undergoing “industrial explosion.”
Green plants can’t compete with the toxins being released from industrial plants but they provide a valuable service.
“Green plants suck up carbon dioxide, the source of global warming,” said Burger, “We need reforestation and more intensive planting.”
As for Burger’s own planting experience, he is a man without a garden, due to space restrictions at his Hyde Park home. Even worse, “I have a brown thumb,” the botanist joked, “Every plant I touch dies.”
Even if Burger isn’t having gardening success on a personal level, he can share his wisdom about preserving our fragile environment through flowers.