Iridescent flowers? Contribution of surface structures to optical signaling

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The color of natural objects depends on how they are structured and pigmented. In flowers, both the surface structure of the petals and the pigments they contain determine coloration. The aim of the present study was to assess the contribution of structural coloration, including iridescence, to overall floral coloration. We studied the reflection characteristics of flower petals of various plant species with an imaging scatterometer, which allows direct visualization of the angle dependence of the reflected light in the hemisphere above the petal. To separate the light reflected by the flower surface from the light backscattered by the components inside (e.g. the vacuoles), we also investigated surface casts. A survey among angiosperms revealed three different types of floral surface structure, each with distinct reflections. Petals with a smooth and very flat surface had mirror-like reflections and petal surfaces with cones yielded diffuse reflections. Petals with striations yielded diffraction patterns when single cells were illuminated. The iridescent signal, however, vanished when illumination similar to that found in natural conditions was applied. Pigmentary rather than structural coloration determines the optical appearance of flowers. Therefore, the hypothesized signaling by flowers with striated surfaces to attract potential pollinators presently seems untenable.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)667-673
Number of pages7
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul-2014


  • coloration
  • petal striations
  • plant-pollinator signaling
  • reflection
  • scatterometry

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