Believe it or not, the blue iridescence of Begonia pavonina is an evolutionary adaptation to extracting the most amount of energy out of the dim light that makes it through the thick rainforest canopy above. Even more bizarre, it works thanks to an interesting property of quantum mechanics.
Native to Malaysia, B. pavonina lives out its life in deep shade. Most of the sunlight that hits this region is absorbed by the thick canopy of trees above. As such, eking out an existence is a challenge for these understory herbs. That is where this fantastic blue iridescence comes in. To understand it better, researchers had to take a closer look at its cause.
Inside any photosynthetic leaves resides the chloroplasts. Chloroplasts are filled with tiny stacks of membranous compartments called "thylakoids." This is where the light reactions of photosynthesis take place. Now, in most plants, these thylakoids are haphazardly distributed throughout the chloroplast. This is not the case for B. pavonina. For this species, the thylakoids are arranged in a very precise way.
It is this precision that gives the leaves their iridescent color. Their placement causes blue wavelengths of light to be reflected. This isn't a big loss for the plant as most of the blue light is absorbed by the canopy above anyway. What it does instead is quite fascinating. The stacked thylakoids act like a dense crystal. When light enters the chloroplasts of B. pavonina it is physically slowed down.
This effect is known to quantum physicists as "slow light." Whereas light traveling through a vacuum maintains a constant speed, light passing through different types of matter can actually be slowed down. By slowing light as it passes through the chloroplasts, the thylakoids are able to take advantage of what little light the leaves are able to intercept. For B. pavonina, this equates to a 10% increase in photosynthetic rates. Coupled with an increase in the absorbance of red-green light, one can understand why this is such an advantage.
Another interesting aspect of its physiology is the fact that B. pavonina produces both "normal" and iridescent chloroplasts. It is thought that this is a form of backup for the plant. In instances where enough light actually does make it through to the forest floor, B. pavonina can use its normal chloroplasts instead. It should be noted that this is not the only case of blue iridescent leaves in the plant kingdom. Many other species including spike mosses, ferns, and even orchids exhibit this trait. Even leaves that don't appear iridescent to our eyes may be utilizing nanostructures such as those seen in B. pavonina to increase their photosynthetic efficiency in low light conditions. It is very likely that many different kinds of plants are physically manipulating light to their benefit.
Photo Credit: Michael Perry