Light Year

I’ve noticed color more this year than in others, due mainly to its absence in our large, fruited vegetable garden, where I focused much attention.  On the other hand, the Happiness Garden—our .71 acre of meadow perennial heaven at Fordhook Farm—has never been more luminous, shining in the sun.  “Ganz lustig!” as my grandmother used to describe fresh pumpernickel bread.

Writing the Heronswood catalogue three years ago, I included phrases and sayings that “floated” amidst the copy and photography, as the designers say.  One of them was “Colors of the garden are the first inventions of light”.  I rather liked it, as these things go.  However, while I might have been poetic and provocative, I think now that I was wrong.

I’ve tried to piece together the history of color over the last few weeks, now that the poignant months of diminished daylight are here, and I have a bit of free time.  The last Open at Kingston was October 4th and the last at Fordhook on September 25th and 26th.

Fall colors are completely gratuitous, in my opinion.  The celebrated foliage colors—and impressive ones they are—serve no purpose to the trees.  They may mark time for birds or perhaps signal nut season for squirrels, but I’m not sure.  So, I wonder, how did the intentional, purposeful colors of flowers—so key to the plants’ survival—come about?  What, indeed, invented them?  Not the flowers, I mean, but the actual colors.  Color itself?

First, I understand that light is energy, and that, therefore, all “color” is within light.  It is light itself, so to speak.  Concrete enough, I suppose, if you are a physicist.  But let’s leave waves versus photons aside for the moment.

Consider the creation of the earth’s present atmosphere—the one we inhabit and use.  It’s mostly nitrogen and then oxygen and then an obvious, or visible, amount of water vapor, plus small amounts of various other gases.  Our atmosphere, as I mentioned in my last blog, was influenced heavily by the rise of the terrestrial plants, perhaps more than any single class of beings.  So much oxygen was produced so rapidly that we are still feeding off it and likely will be for millions more years.  Plants mothered the earth, as we know it, and certainly, in the next turn, gave birth to us.  We would not have evolved without them.

So how did plants invent their colors, so to speak?  When one looks at a rainbow or any glass-like spectrum, one sees the main “colors” of visible light.  But, like in a thought experiment, what would visible radiation “look like” to plants?

The reason I ask is because flowers co-evolved  with the tiny creatures that first pollinated them.  Pollen was probably an evolved form of spores, which is why it is not nearly as visually interesting as petals and colored petaloid parts such as tepals and bracts—flowers, in a word.

So, the first “eyes”—besides those of the sea creatures—belonged to these early insects that used them mainly to hunt, escape and mate—as you’d expect—and the flowers represented a major innovation in the ecology between plants and the insects they hosted, protected and—on the other hand—repelled when necessary.  Insect eyes probably preceded flower color.  But I don’t know; the fossil record should confirm this.

Did “colors” as we see them and enjoy them in the garden, woods and meadows, arise from the plants as an evolutionary step?  If so, then, they—the plants—invented color as we know it.  A simplistic thought, but profound and a bit provocative.

I asked a few colleagues last week if they knew why the sky was blue.  I did not know how terrible it is to ask someone this question—a “Scientific Era Taboo”.  But I was just hoping someone was going to answer it.  One friend finally came through. Various gas molecules, which make up most of the atmosphere, reflects visible light, at the wavelength “stopping”, if you will, at what we call blue.  Blue represents a level of energy that comprises visible radiation, a degree of its strength, or frequency of wave length.  This subtle quality gives “blue” its character.  (Why blue is such a psychologically complex color I do not know.  Perhaps because we evolved beneath it.)  But that is—literally—how we are able to see it, and probably how most similarly composed lenses and brains “see” it as well.

Inherently, living organisms are a lot more alike than is normally supposed.  So, a bee probably sees blue more or less as the color we see—probably less than a raccoon would in comparison to us, but you see my point.  Which is why it is that I believe that flowers invented terrestrial color.

So, let’s review.  Color was, or is, in light.  Light contains all colors, as potentialities.  Flowers—of all land-based creation—took up where light left off, in the general scheme of things.

Or put it this way:  plants “created” the atmosphere. The basic, coarse colors become visible only by passing through that atmosphere, which functions as a sort of spherical spectrum. The multitude of colors that we experience were created by tonal variations picked up by the primitive eyeballs of the day.  In time, our eyes became sharper in response.  So plants, indirectly, enabled us to see color.  Perhaps plants, by creating so much of the atmosphere, gave us our ability to see as well as we do.

Finally, it is interesting to note that one of the greatest debates among evolutionary biologists is how eyes came into being.  It’s almost like the debate about humans as “the symbol-makers”.  Eye-sight itself could be seen, so to speak, as the first language.

See what I mean?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 at 9:17 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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9 Responses to “Light Year”

  1. Ken O'Dell said:


  2. Sharon Warden said:

    I love this blog and know how important color is in nature. I was watching the little yellow butterfly in my garden flitting from Mexican Petunia to the next, drinking for a long time. Then she/he came close to me and almost landed on my shirt; I looked down and realized that the color of my shirt was almost the exact color of those petunias! Of course the butterfly realized her mistake right away and flew off. Also it was interesting to see and very beautiful that the yellow butterfly went for the purple flowers, and they are complimentary colors on the color wheel, artists use them a lot together. Color is such an important part of the world, isn’t it?

  3. Cathy Woinski said:

    I always enjoy the log, but this article is especially fascinating addressing the science of color in relation to the plants. Thanks and keep them coming!!!

  4. Stephen Jacobs said:

    You know the story of human vs octopus eyes? They are anatomically very similar, except the human retina is inside-out (light has to go through a layer of nerves to reach the light sensors). Two organs that similar (but so different that they can’t have a near common origin) show that there’s something particularly good about the design.

    Or how about this: a particular jellyfish (box jellyfish or sea wasp) is a good guess for the simplest creature with image-forming eyes. It’s also a good guess for the simplest creature with distinct waking and sleeping states.

  5. Catherine Bente said:

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the colors of the world as they developed, and before man had a hand in hybridiizng. What if plants developed different colors in different geographical locations. What if different cultural art forms developed as a result of the artist being influenced by the colors around him in nature.
    Does this mean plants are a patron of the arts?
    I suddenly feel quite small…I shall prune with great care and respect this season.

  6. Belinda said:

    and perhaps natural selection enhanced our color-sight so that we would enjoy and care for the plants, thereby increasing their chance of survival in our current “environmentally-destructive phase” on earth (a symbiosis)….

  7. John Mays said:

    In reality, it was only long after the first mammals and the first birds began gracing the landscape that the first flowering plants came into existence — only about 135 million years ago. Even then it wasn’t until 80-90 million years ago that flowering plants began dominating the landscape. It is theorized that flowers may have contributed to the extinction of dinosaurs as the flowers may have been poisonous to herbivorous dinosaurs. So, perhaps flowers developed color, like many animals, to warn preditors to avoid them or pay the price!

  8. Bill Barnes said:

    Hi, George
    See you’re pondering colors in plants . You should know that much of colors in plants , leaves , flowers, fruit are there because they have jobs to do and the primary purpose wasn’t so much for us(read animals) to see as it was a form of suntan that prevented light damage to delicate plant parts . That is a very short synopsis of why there are colors in plants . Green is there to faciliate photosynthesis , reds and blues have a hand in the matter as well and the carotinoids are sunscreens. Evrything needs sunscreens , plants are lucky to make their own. The second need for colors is that the chemicals that make up the colors are often unpalatable and the bright colors are a warning about there being poisons or at the very least substances there that might have bad affects. Berries of nightshade being a good example. Bad experiences can be equated to certain colors and are remembered easily by the victum . What about benign things with color. What is their story . Really quite simple . Mimicry and sunscreens can often combine . Hence tomatoes are bright red but not dangerous (sunscreen and mimicry ) where as poison nightshade is dangerous .The whole processes are complex and not as simple as this explaination but that is the general idea. I spent two years working on the biochemistry of flower color and it is clear that the colors came along , long before there was any substantial group of animals to take advantage of them. Plant tans are much prettier than ours.

    Bill Barnes
    Immediate Past President of the International Plant Propagators Society and owner of Barnes Horticultural Services .

    Send an email if you want to know more.

  9. Karen said:

    This is a most excellent article. I love color in all things. I have red hair and once a humming bird tried to land on my head thinking I was a flower, I guess. I moved and it flew away.
    Would flowers still have their color if there was no light? Kind of like the question of a tree falling in the forest making no sound if no one is there to hear. Lots of things to think about. Thanks for your insight.

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