Asters, that’s who mean. The family Asteraceae contains well over 30,000 species. In one small place, around the little Nal-Damayanti Tal in the lake district of Kumaon were these seven species. Some were fleabanes (both seem to belong to the genus Erigeron), two look like daisies, and three I cannot really place.
How do I know they belong to the Aster family? Because they can be identified by one simple feature: they have compound flowers. At the center of each compound flower is a disk, filled with tiny flowers. These are called disk florets. Larger petals surround the central disk. Each petal is an individual flower, called a ray floret. The disk and the rays are often different colours. If this reminds you of sunflowers, daisies, gerbera, or chrysanthemum you are right. They are all part of the same family.
There are no true daisies (genus Bellis) in India. So these must be something closely related, perhaps true asters? I always wondered if there are so many asters in the world, why haven’t we tamed many of them into edible plants, like we have done to grasses. I looked it up today, and it seems that asters do not store energy in starch but in what we would think of as dietary fiber.
Almost three quarters of Asteraceae belong to a subfamily called Asteroideae, which contains most of our garden flowers. I think it means that the two flowers in this bunch which look like daisies could be the most difficult to identify. The rest should be relatively easy. Any guesses? As the Terminator said, “I’ll be back”, to write down the identifications of these seven in full when I get them.
The dwarf honeybee (Apis florea) that you see in the featured photo caught my attention because of waggling bottom. I’ve heard about their language of dance, so I’d imagined they would be supple, but this was quite amazing. It wagged its whole body to work its way deeper into the flower in order to reach its cache of nectar. Never having seen such a diligent bee, I took a photo. The flower was spectacular too.
I’ve written posts on compound flowers before, explaining the failure of Fibonacci numbers in accounting for the number of petals. This is a wonderful example, although I don’t know what the flower is called. A large flower like this has a central disk, where bees find nectar, and large petals on the outside. If you look closely, the center is full of tiny fully formed flowers, which are called ray flowers. The “petals” around it are each a separate flower, which are called disk flowers. Here you see that the disk flowers are actually each also a complete flower. You can tell that they have no separate chamber for nectar, because no pollinator comes to them. It’s a fantastic missing link between simple and compound flowers.
I love the sight of flowering cosmo. You find them growing in gardens, but they often escape and grow wild. As you can see, these are typically eight-petaled. On the other hand, all Himalayan wild flowers that I photographed on a trip a couple of months ago turned out to have five petals. Eight is the number that follows five in the Fibonacci sequence of numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on. Each number after the first two is obtained by adding up the two previous numbers. Works on aesthetics are full of the mystical properties of these numbers, and the relation they bear to the Golden Ratio, which is the ratio (1+√5):2. If you are interested, I can point you to one or two. But all these theories are wrong for a simple reason; they do not really describe flowers.
Is the number of petals in a flower always a number out of the Fibonacci sequence? Of course not. Primroses and Gentian have four petals. The ginger and onion families have flowers with six petals. I’m sure they are no less beautiful than five or eight petaled flowers. So it is surprising to find web sites on popular mathematics which make the unprovable claim that most flowers have a Fibonacci’s number of petals. This is a hollow claim because we don’t know what “most” means: is it 90 out of hundred or 51 out of a hundred. Should we count the number of flowers, or the number of species of plants? “Most” is a weasel word. Even so there are some impressive attempts to debunk this claim.
The most impressive amongst the scant evidence for Fibonacci’s flowers is the sunflower, which has 21 petals. There is a missing number, as you may have noticed: the even more mystical 13. Looking through the collection of flowers which I photographed, I can offer the example of a thirteen petaled gazania in the photo below.
I don’t have the legendary patience of a botanist, so I have never managed to count petals up to the next number in Fibonnaci’s sequence, which would be 34. But it seems that I don’t need to play along with this myth. All the flowers with more than six petals are compound flowers. Each one of the structures that we think of as petals is a separate flower and the cluster of rods at the center are also other flowers. The central ones are called ray flowers and the ones we naively think of as petals are called disk flowers. You can easily look at the gazania in the last photo more closely and see that the ray flowers have five petals each. The cosmo also seems to have five petaled ray flowers. The disk flowers are also five petaled, but you have to look at the underside of the flower to see how they have fused together.
Contrary to mystics, botanists find that the number of petals is three, four, five or six. Some counts say that 70% of all flowering plants have five petals. I don’t know how precise this census is. Such percentages depend again on what you count: flowers, species or genus. But one thing is certain. Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio may be nice stories, which have little to do with the budding of a flower.
Now, there might be an escape route for the Fibonacci fans; so let me quickly block that exit. Could it be that the number of disk flowers in a compound flower is a Fibonacci number? After all that is the number of “petals” most of us count. It seems that this story also fails. In the photo above I show you a spectacular water lily. If you count the “petals”, you will find a number between 21 and 34. Since these are successive Fibonacci numbers, so the actual count is definitely not a Fibonacci number.