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What causes color in flowers?

What causes color in flowers?

Flowers come in a stunning array of colors that brighten our world and inspire joy. But what makes flowers blue, red, yellow, or other vibrant hues? The secrets behind flower coloration have fascinated people for centuries. Modern science has revealed the biological and chemical factors that produce the rainbow of floral colors.

How Plants Make Flower Pigments

The source of flower color is pigments – chemical compounds that reflect or transmit certain wavelengths of visible light. Flowers contain a range of pigments, often in combinations that enhance one another. The three major classes of pigments in flowers are:

  • Anthocyanins: Water-soluble pigments that produce blue, purple, and red colors.
  • Carotenoids: Fat-soluble orange, red, and yellow pigments.
  • Betalains: Water-soluble red and yellow pigments.

Plants synthesize these pigments through complex biochemical pathways. The anthocyanin pathway involves an enzyme called anthocyanidin synthase that catalyzes key reactions. Carotenoid synthesis requires a set of enzymes that produce intermediates like lycopene and beta-carotene. Regulation of these pathways determines how much and what types of pigments accumulate in different flower parts.

How Genetics Controls Flower Color

The particular palette of pigments present in a flower species is under genetic control. Plant genomes contain numerous genes coding for enzymes in pigment synthesis pathways. The alleles, or variants, of these genes present determine the plant’s capacity to produce certain pigments.

Some major color genes in flowers include:

  • Anthocyanin genes – Control enzymes catalyzing anthocyanin production.
  • MYB transcription factors – Regulate anthocyanin and carotenoid genes.
  • Flavonoid 3′ hydroxylase – Shifts anthocyanin synthesis toward bluer hues.
  • Carotenoid cleavage dioxygenases – Break down orange carotenoids to generate other colors.

Flower color is a complex, quantitative trait. Alleles at multiple interacting genes contribute to the end result. Gene variants producing more or less of key pigments combine to create distinctive floral hues. The inheritance of these alleles follows Mendelian principles.

How Environment Influences Color

Although genetics establishes the range of colors possible, environmental factors fine-tune final flower coloration. Key influences include:

  • Light – Exposure to sunlight boosts synthesis of anthocyanins and carotenoids.
  • Temperature – Cool temperatures favor anthocyanin production.
  • pH – Anthocyanins change color based on cellular pH.
  • Chemicals – Fertilizers, soil nutrients, or drought alter pigment biosynthesis.
  • Pollinators – Some flowers evolve colors to attract certain pollinator animals.

While genetics draw the outline, environment fills in the colors. Their interaction brings floral hues to their vivid peak.

Co-pigmentation Alters Color Intensity

Co-pigmentation, a secondary molecular mechanism, can drastically intensify flower colors. In co-pigmentation, anthocyanin pigments form molecular complexes with other compounds called co-pigments. Most co-pigments come from a class of chemicals called flavonoids.

Common co-pigments in plants include:

  • Flavones
  • Tannins
  • Phenolic acids
  • Alkaloids
  • Carotenoids

By stacking or intercalating with anthocyanins, co-pigments alter light absorption. This stabilizes and enhances anthocyanin colors. Different co-pigment combinations shift hues toward blue or orange. This fine-tunes floral coloration.

Color Patterns From Cell Shape and Arrangement

While biochemistry determines pigment production, a flower’s color patterning depends on cellular structure. Petal epidermal cells come in various sizes and shapes. These create an optical effect altering reflected wavelengths.

Several examples include:

  • Conical cells – Reflect light uniformly, washing petals in color.
  • Papillate cells – Have tiny bumps that scatter blue and UV light, making colors appear more vibrant.
  • Ridges – On cells act as diffraction gratings, producing iridescence.

Petal veins and air spaces can also generate optical effects. Combining this anatomy with localized pigment placement produces intricate floral patterns.

Why Did Colorful Flowers Evolve?

For plants, flowers facilitate reproduction by attracting pollinator animals. Flower color plays a key advertising role. Particular colors target the visual systems of specific pollinators. This maximizes chances the pollinator will visit and transport pollen.

Some examples of co-evolution between flowers and pollinators include:

  • Bees see blue, yellow, ultraviolet – flowers evolve these hues.
  • Birds see red – Hummingbird-pollinated flowers are often red.
  • Butterflies see red, orange – Butterfly bush produces these colors.

Unusual flower colors have also evolved as a novelty to stand out. Selection continually shapes floral colors for better pollination.


Flower color is multifaceted, derived from a fusion of chemistry, genetics, environment, anatomy, ecology, and evolution. Precise biochemical pathways synthesise color pigments that genetics controls and conditions modify. Cell shape and placement generate patterns and optical effects. These factors blend to produce the diverse, vivid colors that make flowers so prized.