The Mystery of Flower Colours

Jade colour plantIs it made of jade? Look at that colour! my son exclaimed. That’s my favourite colour ever, my daughter added. We were inside The Glasshouse at RHS Wisley filled with exotic plants in its tropical, dry temperate and moist temperate zones. What was remarkable as we walked around – actually my kids ran – was the display of different flower colours.

I was soon filled with wonder at how nature has such a wide palette of colours, from the subtle to the vivid, from the speckled to the striped, when it comes to flowers. Back home I perused through my nature books and searched online trying to find basic answers to why flowers are so colourful. Was it an act of survival to attract pollinators? Is it the scent or colours that attract insects to flowers? Bees and other insects also see colours differently from us including those in the ultra-violet range.

It seems that scientists are still debating the mystery of flower colours. Back in 1793 the German botanist Christian Konrad Sprengel explained that flowers were not here to please us humans but to attract pollinators in his book about “The uncovered mystery of nature…” Two centuries later scientists wrote in a paper on flower colour published by The Royal Society:

“Seemingly trivial questions such as ‘why don’t all flowers have the same colour?’ or ‘what is the biological meaning of the diversity of flower colours we see?’ remain unanswered.”

Orange exotic flowers

During a recent meet up at RHS Wisley what personally struck me was the blast of colours as we went from one garden to another, indoors or outdoors.

Palm plant wth flower in centreFlower in palm plantOrange orchid

At the peak of Tulipomania in the 17th century, what astounded collectors was the sheer diversity of shapes and colours in tulips. The multicoloured effect on many of them we now know was caused by a virus spread by aphids. But we still gawp at the brightness of tulips such as I viewed at RHS Wisley or recently at a tulip festival at Standen House. Many are now hybrids cultivated to adorn our gardens with spring colour or in vases inside our homes.

Red tulips with white edgesTulips variety of colours rhs wisleyTulips all colours RHS Wisley

In the alpine houses at RHS Wisley, tiny flowers grew amongst the rocks. But this did not diminish the power of their petals’ colours.Lewisia cotyledon

Alpine flowers at RHS Wisley

There have been a multitude of studies showing that bees prefer blue or even violet flowers. When we recently moved house I placed our red and blue candle lanterns on a deck. I’ve had to put the blue one away as it turned into a non-stop bee trap. Not once did I have to free a bee from the red lantern even though it had a blue candle inside it.

“…tests showed that bees preferred warmer plants and could learn to identify the hotter species by the colour of flowers.” (BBC report)Blue and red lanterns on deck

Birds, however, are known to be attracted to red flowers rich in nectar. Once again it’s still a bit of a mystery why bird-pollinated flowers are usually red!

Red rhododendron

During my visit to RHS Wisley I discovered red and violet strains of one of England’s most spectacular wild flowers – the pasqueflower or Pulsatilla vulgaris. They only appear in late April and early May and are now considered ‘vulnerable’ in Britain. The bell shaped hairy flower opens up to display a central boss of yellow stamens.Pasque flower at RHS WisleyPasque flower Pulsatilla vulgaris

From the tropical orchids to the native but exotic looking pasqueflowers, so many had colours that made them stand out in a crowd – whether they were trying to attract bees, butterflies, birds or perhaps you and me. This week I’ve been marvelling at the sight of bluebells in the ancient woodlands around us – so much blue under the canopy of trees! I’ve had to explain to my daughter that it’s illegal to pick them as she wants me to regularly place a vase with blue flowers in her bedroom.

In the meanwhile, if my children ask me questions again about the wonders of flowers’ colours, I’ll now simply answer: It’s a mystery of nature.

26 thoughts on “The Mystery of Flower Colours”

    1. Same here Jocelyn which was why I was quite surprised not to find some simple answers!! I figure if the scientists are still trying to figure it all out I can just enjoy and wonder!

  1. I’ve serous photo envy Kriss, these are stunning. I’ve not really stopped to wonder why the colours are like they are, fascinating once you stop to think about it. I read something about bees being drawn to the colour purple last week but like with most things it went in and out of my mind in a flash!

    Such a great collection of colours in this post – and I love the peep out across from your garden.

    Thanks for joining in again lovely, next week it’s hosted at Gemma Garners blog as I’m away on my hols (there’s a link to her blog in my post) x

    1. Yes the blue lantern is now in storage – I managed to set about 5 free but after the third dead bee I realised it was turning into a death trap!

  2. i know that first jade plant!! it is such an amazing plant with the most beautiful of colors. doesn’t even look real. i feel like your first tropical shots could have been taken here in miami. great place!

  3. I’m always amazed at the range of colours that appear naturally/in nature. Your post this week is a colour lovers dream Kriss, so beautiful, I just keep scrolling back up and down 🙂

  4. Love the tulip photos. I’m very lucky to have a view from my office of an amazing tulip bed so I’ve spent the last couple of weeks admiring it. Hadn’t given any thought whatsoever (until now) as to why flowers are all different colours!

    1. Just read up that it’s a Jade Vine which is pollinated by bats who love the blue-green jade colour in twilight!! According to Cambridge Uni Botanical Garden website “It is thought the bats are attracted by the luminosity of the flowers in the tropical twilight”

  5. Fascinating, I’ve never really thought about the reasons behind the colours – seems odd now that I haven’t. I love that there is such a thing as Tulipomania! Beautiful photos too, a real treat for the eyes 🙂

  6. This is lovely. I think it’s rather nice not to have all the answers. Wonder is a wonderful thing:-) And is that your patio?!?!?! Or a stock photo? What a view!

  7. What a interesting post. I had never stopped to think why flowers are the colour they are before, I just assumed bees like them but hadn’t considered they preferred some colours over others. The view from your deck is wonderful. I am rather envious!

  8. Nicola Young

    What an interesting post and beautiful photos too. My six year old was asking about flowers the other day. I had to laugh because his question was ‘why are all flowers girl coloured?’

  9. You have captured some utterly stunning shots here Kriss, just wow! I must take the kids to Wisley, sounds like a beautiful place to visit 🙂

  10. I always though Tulipomaniac was just a nickname for me! Lovely history lesson, I’ve always wondered how there are so many different shades of green leaves on all the flowers and plants and trees.

    I have blue garden lanterns but they’re a cage design so I’m now pleased to realise that the bees can visit and escape easily! 🙂

  11. I have to admit I had not thought to wonder at why flowers are the colours they are… it was fascinating to read this post. The photos are simply stunning, and I particularly love the jade coloured flowers, wow! Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful post with #ThePrompt (please don’t feel I discourage photos, I just encourage words, and yours are as interesting as always!).

  12. What a fascinating post! I always assumed they were just attracting any old pollenator and never realised the bees and birds have preferences, or that tulip colours were caused by an unfortunate infestation (and I come from Holland so I thought I knew everything there was to know about tulips, you know: tourists like them, they are pretty, that kind of thing). Thank you for a very interesting read.

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