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Nature’s Palette

The Science of Plant Color

Though he didn’t realize it at the time, David Lee began this book twenty-five years ago as he was hiking in the mountains outside Kuala Lumpur. Surrounded by the wonders of the jungle, Lee found his attention drawn to one plant in particular, a species of fern whose electric blue leaves shimmered amidst the surrounding green. The evolutionary wonder of the fern’s extravagant beauty filled Lee with awe—and set him on a career-long journey to understand everything about plant colors.

Nature’s Palette
is the fully ripened fruit of that journey—a highly illustrated, immensely entertaining exploration of the science of plant color. Beginning with potent reminders of how deeply interwoven plant colors are with human life and culture—from the shifting hues that told early humans when fruits and vegetables were edible to the indigo dyes that signified royalty for later generations—Lee moves easily through details of pigments, the evolution of color perception, the nature of light, and dozens of other topics. Through a narrative peppered with anecdotes of a life spent pursuing botanical knowledge around the world, he reveals the profound ways that efforts to understand and exploit plant color have influenced every sphere of human life, from organic chemistry to Renaissance painting to the highly lucrative orchid trade.

Lavishly illustrated and packed with remarkable details sure to delight gardeners and naturalists alike, Nature’s Palette will enchant anyone who’s ever wondered about red roses and blue violets—or green thumbs.

432 pages | 438 color plates, 31 halftones, 83 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Biological Sciences: Biochemistry, Biology--Systematics, Natural History


Earth Sciences: Environment


“What E. O. Wilson did for Biophilia, David Lee does for ‘Chlorophilia’ and indeed the entirety of how we, a visual species, interact with the vegetative world around us. Lee does a masterful job in explaining the science underlying the colors produced by plants, and in doing so shows how they both illuminate and enrich our lives. No trip to the grocery store, the florist, or even out your front door will be the same after reading this book.”--N. Michele Holbrook, Harvard University

N. Michele Holbrook

“David Lee’s favorite plants, and the ones he has spent a lifetime investigating, are the jewel-like iridescent blue plants of the deeply shaded jungle understory, and these have stimulated him to embark on a wide-ranging book on the colors of nature. Lee moves with ease from basic science—the chemistry of pigment molecules, the physics of structural colors, the adaptive importance of plant colors for themselves and the animals that pollinate and disperse them—to the role that plant colors play in human life, from the dyeing of cloth to our art, literature, and languages, and the psychological power of certain colors. Nature’s Palette is a spacious book, full of wonder and wonders, in which the scientific and the personal, the poetic and the historical, come together in the most delightful way—it is a pure pleasure to read.”

Oliver Sacks

"Lee’s book is packed with many gems from botanical and social history. So captivating is his passion for botany that his occasionally bewildering carotenes and anthocyanins can be forgiven. His paean provides a compelling case that botany is full of intellectual challenges, many shamefully neglected."

Philip Ball | Nature

“This book is written for the ‘informed non-scientist, probably with an interest in gardening or natural history.’ David Lee hits his target audience very successfully. He obviously cares about colour because he tells us what photographic film he used for his significant personal contribution to the 238 colour photographs in this richly illustrated book—a small point perhaps but indicative of the detail and care that has gone into its preparation.”

Timothy Walker | Times Higher Education Supplement

"A variegated hybrid of a book: an elegantly produced and beautifully illustrated cross between personal memoir, botanical miscellany and student text."

Alan Cane | Financial Times

"A great book that will leave you looking at leaves and petals with renewed admiration."

Adrian Barnett | New Scientist

"Lee takes his readers through the social history, ecology, evolution and biochemistry of plant colour. Lee makes no apologies for his unabashedly personal approach, and his love and enthusiasm for the subject shine through on every page."

Sandra Knapp | TLS

"This beautifully illustrated book . . . mixes scientific content and personal anecdotes with some art, history and sociology to show how plant colour has enriched the lives of men and women down through the ages. It should appeal to a broad readership."

Michael Prater | Chemistry World

"Nature’s Palette will captivate the nonscientist as well as the scientist in everyone. . . . [Lee] presents a fascinating description of the impact and importance of plants to people. . . . The book is beautifully illustrated and includes topics ranging from the nature and distribution of plant pigments in various plant parts (leaves, flowers, fruits, stems, and roots) to the use of plants to color skin as well as fabric. . . . The science in the book is solid, but is presented in a clear, nonintimidating fashion. Nature’s Palette will appeal to a wide audience."


"Designed to be understood by the well-educated layman, [the book] will serve equally as a good introductory text for undergraduates, getting out of our perceptual rut, and as a means of appreciating . . . the fruit and veg section of the local supermarket."

Adrian A. Barnett | Primate Eye

"[Lee] is at pains to convey his twin delights in plant anatomy and plant physiology to the non-specialist. He does this very well, indeed. . . . The colors of flowers, fruits, stems, and leaves: all are explained with clarity and precision."

Neil A. Harriman | Plant Science Bulletin

Table of Contents


Coloring Our Bodies with Plants
Two Light, Vision, and Color
Three Nature’s Palette
Four The Canvas
Five Patterns
Six Leaves
Seven Flowers
Eight Fruits and Seeds
Nine Stems and Roots
Ten Iridescent Plants
Eleven Why Leaves Turn Red
Twelve Chlorophilia

Appendix A: Plant Pigments and Related Molecules

Appendix B: Separating Plant Pigments by Paper Chromatography
Chapter Notes
Illustration Notes


Association of American Publishers: PROSE Book Award

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