Plant Magicians

Fritillaria flower in different colors and diverse background environments

If you want to survive – hide in plain sight!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

In the mountains of southwest China grows a lucrative treasure called Fritillaria. This flower is commonly used in traditional medicine and comes in THREE colors – gray, brown, and bright lime green. Lately, greens have been disappearing from the slopes. BUT why?

Enter University of Exeter’s Martin Stevens and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They noticed green flowers still flourish in hard-to-reach areas, while gray and brown grow in popular picking spots. Could eager human fingers be causing this vanishing act?

To find out, they put people’s flower spotting skills to the test. Over five hundred volunteers had to find Fritillaria in photos within fifteen seconds.

And? People spotted the green plants quickly – they popped right out! Browns and grays, which blend into the landscape, took longer to find.

During commercial harvesting, humans pick green flowers first, leaving the camouflaged ones behind. Over time, human-plant interactions are encouraging more hidden colors and fewer show-stopping greens.

Talk about some real plant magic – Ta-Da!

Reference: Niu, Yang, Martin Stevens, and Hang Sun. Commercial Harvesting Has Driven the Evolution of Camouflage in an Alpine Plant. Current Biology (2020).