White flowers may be colourful in the view of insects

Yoshikazu Tanaka of the Institute of Plant Science in Osaka sent me an article about the biosynthesis of plant pigments und and pointed out in an e-mail exchange that white petals often contain pigments from the group of flavones and flavonols. “Flavonols and flavones are very pale-yellow and are mostly invisible to the human eye”, Tanaka and his co-authors Nobuhiro Sasaki and Akemi Ohmiya explain. “As they absorb UV, which insects recognize, they give color and patterns to flowers to attract insects.” 

Just as anthocyanins flavons and flavonols belong to the flavonoids. Under the impact of the enzyme dihydroflavonol 4-reductase (DFR) certain flavonols are transformed to a pigment of the anthocyanin group. With certain species, the authors explain with regard to orchids of the tropical genus Cymbidium, DFR does not unfold this effect due to a strict substrate specifity. “This is the reason that these species lack pelargonidin-based anthocyanins and thus lack flowers of an orange/brick red color.”