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Iridescent plants for lighting up the gloom

Some plants bend the light to create peacock colours in the deepest shade

The natural world is full of wondrous visual tricks, from the eerie glow of floating fireflies to the ever-changing camouflage of chameleons. But for me perhaps the most fascinating of all is iridescence – the shimmering, jewel-like colours of butterfly wings or peacock feathers that magically morph their multifaceted shades in front of your very eyes, depending on the angle of the light. But the miracle of iridescence is not something limited to the animal kingdom. It is displayed by a range of easy-to-grow plants that thrive in the deepest, darkest shade. These plants appear to glow fluorescent blue, turquoise or purple, literally bringing light to the darkness, making them perfect candidates for dingy plots or light-starved living rooms. Here are some of my top picks that anyone can have a go with, but first a quick science lesson…

Why quite a large range of unrelated plants seem to have independently evolved the ability to flash light around in dark tropical forest floors has long been a puzzle for scientists. But recently joint research at the Universities of Bristol and Essex made an amazing discovery. It turns out that special structures called “iridoplasts” help plants make better use of the longer wavelengths of green light that filter down to the forest floor by bending it using layer after layer of translucent membranes, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. The combined side-effects of absorbing green light (rather than reflecting it as most plants do) and these weird light-bending layers is a gorgeous metallic blue hue that baffles human observers.


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