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Structural Colour in Flowering Plants

Investigating the structural bases for colour and iridescence in flowers


This multidisciplinary research project, in collaboration with Cambridge University, started in 2009 and combines studies on comparative plant biology, developmental-genetics and physics to develop comparable models of structural colour and iridescence. Structural colour, which characterises a significant proportion of flowers, is the generation of a visible colour independently of chemical pigments, using only physical structures. We characterise the incidence of structural colour in a broad range of flowering plant species and map the data we obtain onto phylogenies. We aim to understand the physical mechanisms for structural colours in selected species, investigate the molecular genetic processes underlying the development of structural colour, and investigate pollinator responses to structural colours and iridescence.

A significant proportion of flowers possess some form of structural colour, often functioning to aid pollinator attraction. Iridescence occurs when the colour of a surface appears substantially different when that surface is viewed from different angles, and can only be produced using structural methods. Flowers with strongly structural or iridescent colours include the iridescent speculum of some Ophrys (bee orchid) species, which mimics the iridescent wings of female insects encouraging naïve male insects to attempt to mate with the flower and thereby effect pollination.

Project duration: 2009-2014


Key papers published 2009-2011

  • Bradshaw, E., Rudall, P.J., Devey, D.S., Thomas, M.M., Glover, B.J. and Bateman, R.M. (2010). Comparative labellum micromorphology of the sexually deceptive temperate orchid genus Ophrys: diverse epidermal cell types and multiple origins of structural colour. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 162: 504–540.
  • Thomas M.M., Glover, B.J., Ellis, A.G., Savolainen, V. & Rudall, P.J. (2009). Development of a complex floral trait: the pollinator-attracting petal spots of the beetle daisy, Gorteria diffusa (Asteraceae). American Journal of Botany 96: 2184–2196.

Project partners and collaborators


Beverley Glover (Dept. Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge)

Ulli Steiner (Dept. Physics, University of Cambridge)

Project funders


Leverhulme Trust award (PI: Glover)

Project Department