Macros from the balcony

This is going to be a unusual post. I had so many topics in mind for this week and so little time to properly develop and research either of them, that instead of leaving you high and dry or publishing a mediocre post, I figured – I will share the beauty of nature on my very own balcony + some basic science responsible for it!

(You can click on each image to see it bigger)

The weather in Belgium has been as beautiful as ever, and my pride – my balcony garden has been in full colour for weeks now (hope I don’t jinx it!). So I got to play with the attachments lenses for my phone camera and got a few early dew-macros of the leaves and various flowers on the balcony. I think they are amazing and as good as it gets for mobile-phone photography. 

Also, don’t forget that neither of these photos would’ve been half as pretty if it wasn’t for science

Physics of water

And yes, I’m talking about the surface tension of water which allows for the droplets of water to look so ethereal. 

Chemistry and light physics of plant pigments

I am also talking about the various chemicals and molecules in the petals of flowers, which absorb light and in turn emit photons with different wavelengths, making these vibrant colours. Most of my plants are geraniums (Pelargonium species) and few dahlias and mini-carnations. Anyway, for the case of the geraniums at least, all the ranges from pale pink, through salmon to intense pink, red and all the way to deep purple are mostly due to a single group of molecularly similar pigments, called anthocyanidins

Anthocyanidins are not to be mistaken with the anthocyanins which are more often related to blue, purple and sometimes red coloring in plants. In flower petals of geraniums, the color variation often depends just on the various concentrations and specific molecular variants of each anthocyanidin. In other plants for comparison, factors like ratios with completely different family of pigments, as well as the acidity in the soil (respectively in the leaf) can play major role for the final color of the petal. 

This is a representative molecule for the anthocyanidins. The corners of each ring are carbon atoms unless otherwise indicated (for example that O in one of the corners is an oxygen). And the R-s are just a standard way to indicate that different chemical groups can be attached to these carbons, giving slightly different properties to the pigment, and a different name too. In the rings, where you see double lines between carbons – those are so called aromatic rings. The electrons there are moving in a more cloud-based manner between the carbons of the ring. Such aromatic-ring molecules are often related to various colors as the light interacts with these “special” electrons readily. Once it has passed through the molecule, because of this interaction, the light’s wavelength and direction have changed, which is why we can see it with our photoreceptors (our eyes) as different colors.

General structure of the anthocyanidin pigments. Source Wikipedia (click the image if you are interested to read the whole article on these)

List of some of the pigments in the plants on my balcony are:

Apart from having awesome names, those are links to Wikipedia articles on each one, where you can learn a lot more about these pigments and where else you can find them!

Anatomy for the win!

The amazing anatomy of plants has its purpose too. The various cuticular formations like hairs (trichomes) and different surfaces (waxyshiny etc) which give a ton of different textures are often related to the structures which produce and release aromas, sticky substances or even poisons/irritants coming out of the leafy parts of plants as compared to the nectare aromas from the flowers.

Sexy time...

Some of the most fascinating structures on plants are their reproductive organs! Since plants are immobile, they’ve come up with so many various ways to reproduce, that animals can only be humbled with their few variations of mating. Again – an awesome wiki-page on plant reproduction.

Finally, some decorations!

And as if the plants themselves weren’t marvelous enough, I randomly placed in the pots all sorts of shells and stones I’ve been collecting through the years. I’m a biologist, so I’ll leave it to some kick-ass geologist to tell you about the stones another time.

For dessert though, I have this beautiful shell. I wouldn’t have a clue if it’s from a crab or a snail to be honest, as I never got the see the creature living in it. But their fascinating symmetries or endless fractals always blow my mind!

Some seashells are made of calcium carbonate (which is inorganic, chalk like substance) and others – from chitin (which is an organic polymer). They too can often be colored – some on purpose, others simply due to deposits from the water the animal lived in. There’s a whole book, which I will one day read, called “A Compendium of Seashells: A Full-Color Guide to More Than 4,200 of the World’s Marine Shells” – it’s bound to be an interesting read!

That's all folks!

This is all indeed. This time… May be there will be more another time, may be with bugs, although I am sincerely doubtful that a bug would be as patient as my precious plants were to take a pic, marco or not! Hope you enjoyed this random science+photos post – it was much more fun for me to write than I expected when I first started!

What’s in your (balcony) garden? Do you know something about the science behind it being so interesting/beautiful to you? Leave a comment – I’m dying to know! 

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