A Rose By Any Other Name
January 30, 2005 9:57 PM   Subscribe

its my understanding that stuff generally feels smells tastes or looks good because it benefits our survival. Fats and sugars have energy. Sex continues the species. Good interior design makes you feel safe - etc etc.

So why do flowers 'smell good'?
posted by Tryptophan-5ht to Science & Nature (21 answers total)
Not every pleasurable thing is a benefit. Heroin feels great, but it also happens to kill you.

As for flowers, I think the question to ask is: Why do flowers smell at all? Maybe the benefit is to the flower, not to you.
posted by jjg at 10:16 PM on January 30, 2005

Isn't it to attract insects and other potential pollinators?
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:17 PM on January 30, 2005

Not everything is about humans. Flowers are trying to attract pollinators many of which are attracted to the smell of sweet things. We also like the smell of sweet things but that doesnt mean flowers are trying to attract us - we're just lucky bystanders.

That said, there are also flowers that try to attract flies as pollinators. They smell like rotten meat. Here's a quick link I found.
posted by vacapinta at 10:19 PM on January 30, 2005

ok, let me go back a bit.

chemical odors are just chemicals. Our evaluations of their odors directly relate to their usefulness - but they are entirely subjective. Poo smalls bad to us because there is no nutrition and a high probability of disease, but ask a fly about poo.

Im not asking why flowers emitt chemicals in certain formations - im asking why humans have evolved to value the particular chemical make up of flower odors.

vacapinta - i understand. Im asking why humans are the way they are, not why flowers are the way they are.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 10:30 PM on January 30, 2005

Maybe their good smell is a defense mechanism devised to prevent humans from causing their extinction? And maybe in exchange we get the pleasure of their scent which has a calming effect and inspires romance which in turn inspires shagging?
posted by hojoki at 10:32 PM on January 30, 2005

I think he's asking why anything that doesn't benefit our survival/reproduction, flowers being a good example, is pleasurable.

The answer, I'd say, is that flowers smell like sugar, which is a pleasing smell. And while we're not at all compelled to consider eating it, since we know better, the parts of our mind responsible for activating the "mmm, sweet" feeling are still triggered.

There are other pleasing smells that are probably less entirely tied in with the food thing, like "new car," which is on a more intellectual because it's considered the conglomerate smell of a new, welcoming machine.
posted by abcde at 10:35 PM on January 30, 2005

Read the section on tulips in Botany of Desire. It's about the beauty of flowers, rather than their smells, but I imagine the same idea holds. The author, Michael Pollan, mentions the work of Jack Goody and Steven Pinker.

The explanation begins on page 68 or so. The theory goes that flowers were an indicator of fruit-bearing plants to our hunter-gathering ancestors. Individuals that were attracted to and could identify flowers would stand a better chance of getting to the fruit before the competition that were blind to the significance of flowers.

Why non fruitbearing plants are some of the most attractive and smell the strongest isn't clear. Perhaps they were selected for by early humans.
posted by euphorb at 10:38 PM on January 30, 2005

Very many flowers feature prominently in folk cures, and modern testing involving chamomile and hibiscus, to name a couple of examples, shows that many of them do deliver health benefits. Also, of course, being naturally attracted to an area that supports flowers is good for humans, as this is an environment that is also likely to be most welcoming to us. (Plus, of course, flowers mean bees, and bees mean honey, and honey means mead, and mead means paar-tay, which leads to sex, which leads to babies!)
posted by taz at 11:23 PM on January 30, 2005

This is an amusing question.

Some flowers smell absolutely terrible - rancid, rotting meat aromas; vile putrefaction. This attracts flies which pollinate the plant.

"But I never smell those flowers in the florist shop, and no one I know has flowers like that in their garden!"


The flower knows what it's doing, man, from an evolutionary perspective.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:51 PM on January 30, 2005

I would guess that it's not a specifically human trait to like the aroma of plant-genitals, but a mammalian one, or perhaps even one that's common to most animals. Vertebrates in general, like insects, can be a great help to flowers in terms of pollination.
posted by misteraitch at 12:13 AM on January 31, 2005

There's a fascinating book which touches on this point (although I read it years ago, and can't clearly remember the pertinent details)--The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour.
posted by misteraitch at 12:18 AM on January 31, 2005

I think he's asking why anything that doesn't benefit our survival/reproduction, flowers being a good example, is pleasurable.

Why should it be otherwise? Just because most things that are good for us are pleasurable does not mean pleasurable things must therefore be good. And some things are, by coincidence of chemistry, simply a whole lot like other things we have good reasons to really like.

But natural selection is inherently lazy -- it only shapes the really important stuff. Anything that's really important for us to seek, we get an attraction to. Anything that's really important for us to avoid, we get an aversion to. The vast majority of things we encounter fall somewhere in between, and natural selection allows for a wide range of possible reactions.

In other words, flowers smell nice because they are chemically similar to fruits and other things people like, and because the chances of one killing you are very small.
posted by jjg at 12:39 AM on January 31, 2005

Misteraitch has it, I think. Most of our pleasure/pain/good taste and smell/bad taste and smell comes from a long history of evolution before we were specifically humans. So at some point in our history as mammals or even further back there may have been some small advantage to finding flowers. That, or, as some have been saying, we came with a particular biochemical makeup in our olfactory nerves and flowers evolved to smell prettier to us so we would keep them around, spread their pollen and so on. Again, this may have been many years pre-homo sapiens, before we diverged from cats, dogs, etc.

It's also possible that flowers remind of us of a good smell rather than our being specifically adapted to their smelling good. For instance, many trees turn into beautiful colors every fall. We gape in awe at the many colors -- the visual equivalent of smelling a flower. But trees look the way they look in the fall for reasons having nothing to do with our sense of visual beauty. It just plays on our previously developed sense of color-beauty which (probably) evolved for completely different reasons.
posted by ontic at 12:56 AM on January 31, 2005

Many "good" smelling flowers mimic the sex-attractants of the insects that pollinate them. This is especially true for night-blooming flowers and moths. The question then is why do we respond to the smell of insect sex-attractants. Some interesting stuff about insect and flower coevolution.
posted by TimeFactor at 2:11 AM on January 31, 2005

The ingredients of perfumes may be summarised rather bluntly in the following manner. The top notes are made from the sexual secretions of flowers, produced to attract animals for the purposes of cross pollination and often formulated as mimics of the animals’ own sex pheromones. [...] The middle notes are made from resinous materials which have odours not unlike those of sex steroids, while the base notes are mammalian sex attractants with a distinctly urinous or faecal odour. D. Michael Stoddart, 'The Scented Ape,' p.163.
posted by misteraitch at 3:18 AM on January 31, 2005

For the most part, flowers that smell good are edible. I eat flowers. If anyone cares to take a nibble, only eat flowers grown organically, never ever ever eat a flower bought from a flower shop.
posted by iconomy at 4:34 AM on January 31, 2005

it's because both insects and humans share similar metabolisms. the flowers are attracting insects, which are often attracted to similar things that attract us. just like both me and the ants in my kitchen are particular to strawberry jam.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:13 AM on January 31, 2005

iconomy, I eat flowers as well so thanks for the link; I hadn't known so many were edible (or worth eating) (and try stuffed squash blossoms; if you're growing squash there are always many extra male flowers). However, people, be sure you know how to identify the flowers if they aren't coming from your own garden. Fennel, dill, chervil, cilantro, and especially Queen Anne's lace, for example, look very similar to poison hemlock, aka fools-parsley and Socrates' poison of choice, and water hemlock; either of which can kill with just a taste. Several people die each year from ingesting them.
posted by TimeFactor at 5:58 AM on January 31, 2005

Somewhat off-topic, but my wife and I actually have one of the rotting-meat plants. We thought it was just a boring succulent until one day we noticed a gigantic bud. We said to each other, "oh boy, I bet that's going to be a pretty flower!" It bloomed while we were at work, and when we came home we thought there was something rotting in the trash. We followed our noses and were lead to the fully bloomed flower, which was revolting in both smell and appearance. We snipped it off and took it outside, and within minutes a fly was in its center. We touched it and it wouldn't move! It was transfixed by the stink.
posted by zsazsa at 6:05 AM on January 31, 2005

Thanks for adding that, TimeFactor. And I have had squash blossoms - they're delicious! Just the other day I was smelling daylilies here where I work, and they smelled exactly like lettuce, I was so tempted to take a little taste, because that link says they taste like asparagus. But God knows what they grow the flowers in here, so I have to wait until summer for my own to pop up. I'm going to plant squash again too, just for the flowers.
posted by iconomy at 6:37 AM on January 31, 2005

Im not asking why flowers emitt chemicals in certain formations - im asking why humans have evolved to value the particular chemical make up of flower odors.

This may sound a little new-agey, but it may be that humans need "food for the soul" as well as the usual survival stuff. We need things to make our souls (for lack of a better word) happy as well as our stomachs, etc. More simply put: we need beautiful/nice things to make life complete.

I hope that makes sense.
posted by deborah at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2005

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