Open main menu

COLOR, in Plants. The great majority of plants show distinct coloration, especially in aerial or aquatic organs. The absence of color is an index of parasitic or saprophytic life, but it must be borne in mind that many parasites and saprophytes are highly colored. The most common coloring matter in plants is chlorophyll, which manifests itself in various shades of green. Light of some strength has been shown to be necessary for the development of chlorophyll, though recent experiments show that it may develop in various seedlings germinated in perfect darkness, and that the synthesis of carbohydrates may take place vigorously under a dense layer of cork. The presence of plastids and favorable conditions of nutrition are necessary for the proper development of chlorophyll. Yellow coloration in plants is also commonly associated with plastids, and is due to the relative abundance of xanthophyll or carotin present as compared with the true chlorophyll. The phenomenon of yellowness is most common in dying leaves, and is especially well shown in autumn. However, in many young leaves, especially where the nutrition conditions are unfavorable, yellow leaves also appear. Unfavorable nutrition is probably the cause of yellowness in most cases. In dying leaves the part near the veins usually remains green longest. In young leaves the green parts are longer and much better developed internally than are the yellow or white parts.

Red or blue coloration in plants is not directly associated with plastids, but is due to pigments that are scattered through the cell-sap. The coloring substances are called anthocyans, erythrophyll if red, cyanophyll if blue. Blue colors occur most commonly in flowers, while the reds occur abundantly in leaves, as well as in flowers. The red coloration of leaves has been much discussed in literature, and deserves further mention. While in some plants, as coleus, red colors are more or less permanent, in most cases redness is periodic. Perhaps the three most common examples of color display are: (1) in the young actively growing leaves of seedlings or perennial shoots; (2) in wintering leaves, especially of rosette plants; and (3) in dying leaves, especially in autumn leaves. All kinds of causes have been assigned to account for periodic coloration, but by far the most satisfactory is one proposed by Overton in 1899. He has shown experimentally that an excess of sugar in nutrient solutions causes an early and rich development of color, while an absence of sugar retards this development. In the summer the products of a day's photosynthesis are commonly carried off before another day begins; but in the cool autumn nights this transfer is checked, and sugars accumulated in the leaf unite with tannin substances and cause the production of the pigments. A similar explanation, plus the great flow of sap, would account for red leaves in spring. Mechanical injury, which prevents the carbohydrate transfer, also causes an excess of sugar and gives rise to red colors. Light seems to favor color development, perhaps because it favors the increased production of carbohydrates.

Much has been said as to the ecological significance of red colors. Stahl and Kay, as a result of experiments, hold that red colors increase the available supply of heat, and thus prolong the leaf activities in fall and enlarge them in spring. Kerner has also held the ‘protective’ theory of color. If red colors do have any such function—and this is by no means proved—it must probably be regarded as quite incidental. In no case can the need for protection be regarded as a cause of the development of pigment, as one might suppose from reading various treatises on the subject of color. See Chlorophyll; Photosynthesis; Leaf. Consult Overton, “Beobachtungen und Versuche über das Auftreten von rothem Zellsaft bei Pflanzen,” in Jahrbuch für wissenschaftliche Botanik, vol. xxviii. (Berlin, 1899).