Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Floral colour changes as cues for pollinators


PLANTS have evolved traits that enable them to influence directly the behaviour and movement of their pollinators. Here I show that flowers in at least 74 diverse angiosperm families undergo dramatic, often localized, colour changes which direct the movements of a variety of pollinators to the benefit of both participants. Floral colour change was first noted almost 200 years ago1 and is known in a variety of species2–17, but the prevalence and significance of the phenomenon have gone largely unrecognized. I find that retention of older flowers increases a plant's attractiveness to pollinators from a distance, that pollinators discriminate between floral colour phases at close range, and that the discrimination involves learning. The phenomenon of floral colour change is taxonomically widespread, morphologically variable (Fig. 1), and physiologically diverse. It has evolved independently in the angiosperms many times and provides a striking example of functional convergence.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Sprengel, C. K. Das Entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen (Vieweg, 1793).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Delpino, F. Atti Soc. ital. Sci. nat. 16, 151–349 (1873).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Müller, F. Nature 17, 78–79 (1877).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Müller, H. Nature 28, 81 (1883).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Kugler, H. Ergebn. Biol. 19, 143–323 (1943).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Vogel, S. Öst. bot. Z. 97, 44–100 (1950).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Dunn, D. B. Am. Midl. Nat. 555, 443–472 (1956).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Wainwright, C. M. Bull. Torrey Bot. Club 105, 24–38 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Schaal, B. A. & Leverich, W. J. S. West. Nat. 25, 280–282 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Gori, D. F. in Handbook of Experimental Pollination Biology (eds Jones, C. E. & Little, R. J.) (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1983).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Casper, B. B. & La Pine, T. R. Evolution 38, 128–141 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Lamont, B. Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 90, 145–155 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Mathur, G. & Mohan Ram, H. Y. Phytomorphology 36, 79–100 (1986).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Eisikowitch, D. & Rotem, R. Bot. Gaz. 148, 175–179 (1987).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Cruzan, M. B., Neal, P. R. & Willson, M. F. Evolution 42, 505–515 (1988).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Gori, D. F. Evolution 43, 870–881 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Delph, L. F. & Lively, C. M. Evolution 43, 1252–1262 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Weiss, M. R. Acta Hort. 288, 294–298 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Willson, M. F. & Whalen, C. J. Evolution 136, 790–809 (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  20. Wheelwright, N. T. & Janson, C. H. Am. Nat. 126, 777–799 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Greig-Smith, P. W. Am. Nat 127, 246–251 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Zimmerman, M. in Plant Reproductive Ecology—Patterns and Strategies (eds Lovett Doust, J. & Lovett Doust, L.) (Oxford University Press, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Pflumm, W. Oecologia 66, 207–210 (1985).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Overland, L. Am. J. Bot. 47, 378–382 (1960).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Robacker, D. C., Meeuse, B. J. D. & Erickson, E. H. Bioscience 38, 390–398 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Williams, N. H. in Handbook of Experimental Pollination Biology (eds Jones, C. E. & Little, R. J.) (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1983).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Sokal, R. R., & Rohlf, F. J. Biometry (Freeman, New York, 1981).

    MATH  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Weiss, M. Floral colour changes as cues for pollinators. Nature 354, 227–229 (1991).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing