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How do flowers change color?

Flowers come in a spectacular array of colors that brighten our world and delight our senses. But how exactly do flowers produce their vibrant hues? The key lies in pigments – colorful compounds produced by the flowers themselves. By understanding how pigments work and how flowers control them, we can unravel the mysteries behind nature’s palette.

Flowers mainly derive their bright colors from three classes of pigments: betalains, anthocyanins, and carotenoids. Each pigment absorbs some wavelengths of light and reflects others, producing the color we see. For example, anthocyanins reflect reddish-purple light while absorbing other colors.

These pigments are produced in special cell structures inside the petals called plastids. The specific blend of pigments, as well as cell shape, size, and structure, all affect the final color. In some cases, pigments may be modified after production by factors like pH or metal ions, resulting in color shifts.

Flowers carefully regulate their production of pigments in response to environmental factors, especially light. They use pigment production to attract pollinators, defend against stress, and perform photosynthesis. By comparing related species and analyzing genetic mutations, scientists have uncovered many of the pathways plants use to control their floral hues.

Join us as we explore the biological wizardry behind nature’s palette and how flowers customize their colors!

The Main Pigments of Flower Color

While additional compounds contribute more subtly, most of the brilliant colors in nature arise from just three main classes of pigments:

  • Betalains – Water-soluble pigments containing nitrogen. They produce red-violet to yellow colors.
  • Anthocyanins – Soluble pigments belonging to the flavonoid class. They appear red, purple, or blue.
  • Carotenoids – Lipid-soluble orange and yellow pigments.

The specific color reflects the pigment’s molecular structure and interactions with cell components. For example, anthocyanins consist of a positively charged flavilium cation linked to a sugar. This charged structure absorbs bluer light and reflects longer reddish wavelengths.

Carotenoids like lutein absorb bluer light thanks to their long system of conjugated double bonds. The orange carotenoid zeaxanthin possesses hydroxyl groups that shift absorption to slightly longer wavelengths.

Where Pigments are Made and Stored

Flowers produce their colorful pigments inside organelles called plastids. Plastids are a family of compartments in plant cells that carry out key functions including photosynthesis, synthesis, and storage.

The main plastids that generate flower pigments are:

  • Chromoplasts – Plastids devoted to pigment synthesis and storage. They produce vivid yellow/red colors.
  • Leucoplasts – Undifferentiated plastids that can become chromoplasts.
  • Chloroplasts – Contain chlorophyll for photosynthesis. Also produce carotenoids.

These plastids are found among the cells of the petals, leaves, stems, and sometimes fruits. The specific complement of plastids helps determine final flower color.

For example, many white flowers actually contain colorless leucoplasts where chromoplasts could have developed. Blue or purple flowers get their hue solely from vacuolar anthocyanins, since their plastids lack carotenoids.

Flowers also strategically arrange plastids to maximize their displayed color. Plastids may be clustered around the edges or central areas of petal cells.

How Pigments Produce Color

Plant pigments produce color through their ability to differentially absorb and reflect light wavelengths:

  • They absorb certain wavelengths.
  • They reflect the wavelengths not absorbed.

Our eyes perceive the reflected light, which produces the color we see. For example:

Pigment Absorbs Wavelengths Reflects Wavelength(s) Color We See
Anthocyanins Greens, yellows Reds, purples Red, purple, blue
Carotenoids Violets, blues Yellows, oranges Yellow, orange
Chlorophylls Greens, yellows Blues, reds Green

A flower’s specific hue depends on its blend of pigments. More intense colors arise when a wider range of wavelengths are absorbed. Metal ions or pH shifts can tune the wavelengths absorbed.

How Flowers Regulate Pigment Production

Flowers carefully control their production of color pigments in response to environmental cues. Light, temperature, nutrients, and plant hormones all help adjust the mix:

  • Light – One of the biggest factors. Exposure to UV light and blue/green wavelengths drive anthocyanin and carotenoid production.
  • Cool Temperatures – Tend to increase anthocyanins, leading to richer reds in fall.
  • Nutrients – More phosphorous gives brighter reds but fewer yellows.
  • Plant Hormones – Ethylene promotes carotenoid synthesis.

This environmental control helps flowers prepare appropriately. For example, shaded areas lead to paler flowers better suited to attract pollinators. Increased UV light spurs extra anthocyanins to shield petals.

By studying genetically related flowers with different colors, scientists uncovered several key biological mechanisms behind pigment control:

  • Regulation of enzymes that produce pigments
  • Stability of enzyme complexes that synthesize pigments
  • Size, number, and structure of plastids
  • Acidification of vacuoles to stabilize anthocyanins
  • Relative concentration of co-pigments

Researchers continue working to map the full circuitry controlling floral color. Advances could someday allow “painting” of designer blooms!

Genetics Behind Flower Color

The genetics underpinning floral hues are complex but illuminating. Important insights have come from comparing related species and analyzing mutants.

For example, biologist George Beldt identified two key genes controlling color differences among snapdragon species. He named them Rosy and Sulphur:

  • Rosy produces a transcription factor that turns on anthocyanin genes.
  • Sulphur encodes an enzyme needed for yellow carotenoid production.

Snapdragons with nonfunctional Rosy or Sulphur genes showed clear effects:

Genotype Pigments Produced Flower Color
Rosy+/Sulphur+ (normal) Anthocyanins and carotenoids Red
Rosy-/Sulphur+ (rosy mutant) Carotenoids only Yellow
Rosy+/Sulphur- (sulphur mutant) Anthocyanins only Magenta

Other common mutations affect pH, metal transport, and plastid structure. Each alters the pigments produced and colors we observe.

Purpose of Flower Color

Flowers didn’t evolve showy colors just to please our eyes. Pigments help flowers thrive in many key ways:

  • Attract pollinators – Bright, contrasting colors signal food availability.
  • Aid pollination – Unique colors help pollinators recognize flower species.
  • Protect petals – Anthocyanins shield against UV damage.
  • Draw seed dispersers – Bold fruits advertise ripeness.
  • Scavenge light – Broad palette absorbs diverse wavelengths.
  • Deter pests – Some pigments have anti-herbivore effects.

Analyses show flower colors are tuned to the visual systems of their most effective pollinators. For example, bees see best in the violet-blue range.

Mimics and Tricksters

Some species gain advantage by mimicking the bright colors of rewarding flowers. For example:

  • Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) – Mimics female bee pheromones and color pattern.
  • Corpse flower (Rafflesia) – Smells like rotting meat to attract insect pollinators.
  • Bamboo orchid (Arundina graminifolia) – Lures wasps with false promise of nectar.

Other flowers changed color to take advantage of established pollinator preferences. For example, calm lilies likely switched from white to vivid orange to better attract hummingbirds.

This trickery illuminates the evolutionary forces shaping floral colors over time. Natural selection favors any mutation that better attracts efficient pollinators.


The kaleidoscope of flower colors arises from specialized pigments crafted over eons of evolution. Minor genetic changes can tune the palette dramatically, as clever mimics and shifty deceivers show. Yet behind each unique shade remain common physical principles of light absorption, cellular control, and environmental response.

So next time you stop and smell the roses, take a moment to appreciate the biological sorcery behind nature’s paintbox. Those petal pigments represent both ancient origins and endless future possibilities.