In nature, flowers have a simple purpose: reproduction. With bright petals and beautiful scents, they lure insects to their pollen-filled centers to facilitate the plant’s fertilization and survival. Over millions of years, flowering plants have evolved into around 400,000 species, producing blooms of different shapes and colors that compete with one another for the attention of butterflies, ants, and bees.
The draw for insects is clear, but why do humans find flowers pleasing to the eye? Some scientists argue that people developed a liking for flowers because they signal proximity to fruit. Others, like the physicist David Deutsch, suggest that blossoms contain a type of objective beauty, attracting humans with their harmonious colors, soft curves, and symmetrical forms. Whether driven by nutrition, aesthetics, or something else, people have long imbued flowers with personal, cultural, and religious significance.
And creatives have been drawn to them for their evocative qualities, too. Over the centuries, artists have captured the rich symbolism of flowers, tracing the changing meanings of roses, irises, tulips, carnations, and more. Depending on the context, a single flower can represent reproduction or decay, purity or promiscuity, love or hardship—or nothing more than a pile of petals. From white lilies representing the Virgin Mary to’s
flower puppy, here are the botanical highlights of Western art.