Monday, April 5, 2010

Why Are There So Many Shades of Flowers?

It's spring again. Birds seem to be chirping more. I can see squirrels amorously chasing one another outside my apartment. Plant genetic packets in the form of pollen irritate our nasal cavities as our body tries to fight them off as intruders. The shades of nature are turning from darker browns to lighter, fresher greens. And a question comes to my mind. Why are there so many shades of flowers?

Do yourself the justice of not taking it at face value. Let yourself ask the all important scientific questions of 'why' and 'how'. Why did it evolve and how did it evolve? Think about it like this. Take another common color signal--a warning of poisonousness. Typically it's some manifestation of orange--monarchs, coral snakes, poison dart frogs as just three examples. So, why aren't are flowers the same color of, say, blue?  Not only is that not the case, but there is every single stinkin' color shade out there in the angiosperm kingdom.  Why? Well, I list out just a few thoughts of mine and I'd love to hear your contributions.

Different pollinating bug eyes: a certain bug may have evolved eyes to see certain spectrums best to see predators, members of the same species or to recognize and appreciate sexual partner's displays (think something akin to the peacock's tail). Example: a species might have evolved there eyes to distinguish their species' wing color from that of another butterfly's. The plant would then in turn evolve to cater to that spectrum that the insect can see best.

Different lighting: is the flower in full sun? Shaded? Is the light filtered through something (like leaves which cause a green light to come through a canopy)? Maybe I'm wrong about this, but doesn't the most common field flower seem to be yellow or white?  Perhaps thats the best shades for that environ. I do know that many white flowers, conversely are pollinated at night by bats or moths--white reflects the maximum quantity in dark circumstances.

Different background: Will the flower be framed in front of brown bark, green leaves, other flowers?  Don't most jungle flowers seem to be red or pink? (Keep in mind that's entirely speculative)

Different competition: if your'e a magazine, newspaper or web advertisement amongst other advertisements you've got to 'pop'. You've got to stand out amongst the crowd and say, "HEY! Over here! Pick me! Pick me!"

Different offerings: another way that flowers market themselves is by offering different nectar nutritional suites--various combinations of sugars, amino acids, nutrients and edible pollen. You've basically have to 'talk' to the bug/bee/pollinator and say, "Hey, remember me and bring your friends next time. You can find me by looking for the magenta flower." It's a calling card that the pollinator developes an affinity to and then the flower becomes a richer shade of that flower and then the pollinator becomes more inclined to that color and so on and so forth.

So, that's just a taste of the possibilities (we didn't even talk about shape and how evolution is favoring bilateral flowers!), but I hope it will get you to appreciate just a little more the marketing machines that flowers are. When I see a garden or field of flowers I, in my mind's eye, often see a plethora of 'billboards' and 'glossy magazine adds all trying to entice the easily influenceable bugs to buy what they're selling.  (surely they're the only species that happens to :) )


  1. Humans lost the ability to see ultra-violet because all our ancestors were nocturnal for a long time. Flowers look a lot different in UV.

  2. Good point. You mean early mammals?


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