Seeing (Level 3)

Bandon Dunes Blooming Gorse
These are gorse bushes in full bloom along the coast of Oregon. They are also well-known for their presence on the seaside golf courses of Scotland. The bright yellow blossoms colorfully paint the often gray seaside dunes for several weeks each year. The large numbers of blossoms help the gorse to reproduce strongly and quickly grow over large areas. This is so effective for the gorse, that some consider this beautiful plant a weed. If you've read Winnie the Pooh, you might remember that once he found himself falling painfully into the sharp thorns of a gorse bush (those thorns serve to protect the bush from potential predators, furthering its ability to reproduce and spread).

Why Do Flowers Have Different Colors?

Simply put, flowers are colorful for one main purpose, survival. Flowers are the reproductive systems of plants and are therefore responsible for assuring that the plants can survive from one generation to another. Their bright and varied colors help make reproduction and survival possible in several ways. One way is by attracting insects that carry pollen from one flower to another allowing the reproduction process to continue through the creation of fruits and fertile seeds. The distribution of these seeds also might require the help of other animals and that is helped along by making the fruit so delicious and nutritious. Animals eat the fruit and then distribute the seed, and fertilize it, through their manure. Bees provide one example of an insect that benefits from colorful flowers and, in turn, benefit the plants through their work.

The bright colors of flowers (and patterns in the reflected UV, or ultraviolet, energy) attract bees to flowers and even to specific areas on the flowers. The bees like the flowers as a source of sweet nectar, which they process into honey for their food. The flowers like to attract the bees so that pollen from their flowers can attach itself to the bees for free ride to another flower. This transfer of pollen from one plant to another is required for the plant to reproduce and survive (or in some cases for it to produce delicious fruit). Thus, the colors of flowers can be directly responsible for the plant's survival and those plants with flowers that best attract the bees have the best chance for surviving and evolving. More about the ultraviolet and infrared appearance of flowers can be found at this interesting website where there are example pictures of many varieties of flowers.

It has been suggested, and is likely true, that some flowers have evolved simply to please people with their beauty. These beautiful flowers are assured of survival because humans will see to it that they can reproduce and survive through careful cultivation and gardening. Michael Pollan describes this co-evolution of humans and plants in a fascinating book, The Botany of Desire.

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Ever wonder ... What color is the moon?


Updated: Apr. 19, 2011