Science News

Iridiscent Blue Plant Adapted To Its Surroundings

Photo from Matthew Jacobs, the University of Bristol

In the dim, dark depths of Southeast Asia’s rainforests grows a highly unique plant. The Begonia pavonina, or “peacock begonia” shimmers in an iridescent blue instead of the usual leafy green.

The unique color can be explained by no less than science in nature. According to theories, the earliest photosynthetic organisms on the planet were purplish-blue in hue, because photosynthetic chemicals absorbed different light wavelengths, the Washington Post reports.

This process evolved to modern-day photosynthesis, where plants make energy using chloroplasts, which are full of chlorophyll, which is green. So, most plants are naturally green.

But the peacock begonia appears to have a mind of its own. It has adapted to the low levels of sunlight that reach it where it grows on the forest floor, hence its azure leaves.

Heather Whitney, co-author on the study and a specialist in plant surface interactions at the University of Bristol in England, explains that the plant has photosynthetic structures called iridoplasts. In the same manner as chloroplasts, the iridoplasts provide the cellular machinations for photosynthesis by gathering sunlight and converting it to energy. They also rely on chlorophyll to gather light.

But upon examining the plant’s cells under a microscope, Whitney and her colleagues found that the iridoplasts had an unusual shape. They were stacked in layers, separated by a thin film of liquid, much like pancakes stuck together with syrup.

The effect is similar to what happens to oil on top of water in a puddle – it gives off a gleaming blue color. Whitney says,

The light that is passing through gets slightly bent — it’s called interference. So you have this sort of iridescent shimmer.

The layered iridoplasts cause the light that they receive to bend multiple times, creating the plant’s dramatic blue. This unusual structure also allows the plant to absorb the little light available in the dark landscape, with only blue light wavelengths reflecting back and visible to the human eye.

The researchers also think the layering means light reacts slowly with the photosynthetic chemicals so that light collecting is more efficient for the plant.

Whitney says their findings are further evidence that plants are incredibly flexible, able to adapt to their surroundings quite simply because they cannot move. “They’ve probably got loads of tricks we don’t know about yet, because that’s how they survive,” Whitney adds.

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