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Plant and flower shapes

Are we any closer to understanding how and why did the amazing diversity of living shapes evolve?

The amazing shapes of plants and flowers, one of nature’s biggest mysteries: why are they so varied and beautiful? Joining Bridget Kendall are Enrico Coen, who has been making exciting discoveries about how small buds transform themselves into remarkably complex leaves and flowers; Andrew Zuckerman, who explains his quest to capture the essence of a flower’s shape in a single photograph; and Lars Chittka, who invites us to look at flowers through the eyes of bees and other pollinating insects. Photo by Andrew Zuckerman (Jimson Weed, Thorn Apple)

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41 minutes

Enrico Coen

Enrico Coen
Professor of Plant Genetics, Enrico Coen runs his own lab at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. His computer simulations of how plant cells turn buds into blooms are revealing that all the apparent complexity may come down to rules which are surprisingly simple.

Self-making Pots by Enrico Coen and Tilly Eldridge

Self-making Pots by Enrico Coen and Tilly Eldridge
Ceramic pots ‘grown’ according to the same rules which govern plant growth. The intersection between science and culture is something that Enrico has been exploring in recent years.

Andrew Zuckerman

Andrew Zuckerman

Noted New York photographer and filmmaker, Andrew Zuckerman makes intimate portraits of animals, people and flowers set against his signature white background. He says that this distinctive approach allows him to remove subjects from their context and enables a larger conversation between them.

Andrew Zuckerman: Jimson Weed, Thorn Apple (Datura)

Andrew Zuckerman: Jimson Weed, Thorn Apple (Datura)
Jimson Weed, Thorn Apple (Datura)  Photo Credit: Andrew Zuckerman

Andrew Zuckerman: Jade Vine

Andrew Zuckerman: Jade Vine
Jade Vine
Photo Credit: Andrew Zuckerman

Andrew Zuckerman: Darwin's Star Orchid

Andrew Zuckerman: Darwin's Star Orchid
Darwin's Star Orchid
Photo Credit: Andrew Zuckerman

Lars Chittka

Lars Chittka

Professor Lars Chittka is the founder of the Research Centre for Psychology at Queen Mary, University of London. One of the things that he studies at his lab is the way plants interact with other creatures, especially pollinators such as bees, which turns out to be quite a complex relationship of mutual evolutionary influences.

60 Second Idea

Biologist Lars Chittka suggests that we use genetic engineering to breed hybrid and fantasy creatures that human imagination has spawned, from Greek mythology through fairy tales, e.g. mermaids, minotaurs, centaurs, gnomes. On Earth, there are no more new continents with strange life forms to discover and we are a long way from exploring alien life, so in the meantime, to combat boredom, we should invent our own life forms and shapes.

Poem by listener Catherine Diamond inspired by the programme

The Language of Flowers

by Catherine Diamond

A rose maybe a rose maybe a rose

to Juliet and her lover’s nose

but not to the flower itself

that doesn’t know a phylum from a family

but may hold secrets of different kind

known only to the members of its tribe.


For all we know, one red-petaled wonder

may choose to love another

overwhelmed by mysterious passion

that defies reason and practical promiscuity.


Perhaps it’s not just the instinct to breed

or selection for survival alone

that guides the union of two plants;

perhaps not all is left to chance

and even in the vegetal world.

flowers have their own language of romance.

In Next Week's Programme

New paths for growing businesses in our changing world, with Canadian investor Sherry Coutu, Ugandan coffee entrepreneur Andrew Rugasira and American anthropologist Catherine Dolan.