Green plants appear green due to a pigment called chlorophyll that primarily absorbs blue and red wavelengths of the visible light spectrum, but reflects a portion of green wavelengths. This green light enters our eyes and hits the light-sensitive retinas, in which there are cone cells, that once stimulated, sends a signal to our brain that interprets the information, giving the colour green. Therefore it can be stated that the colours of an object is dependent on what colours are reflected (or transmitted) back to our eyes. (Technically speaking, visible wavelengths have no colour. Colour is created in the brain.)
Most humans are trichromats, and possess three types of cone cells sensitive to red, green and blue light, named L M and S respectively. Each cone allows us to distinguish around a hundred shades, so the total number of combinations is at least a million. Colour is determined by our brains that interpret the different ratios of these three colours.
Not all humans, or all animals, perceive colour in the same way. Dichromats, such as dogs, possess two types of cone cells and can distinguish blue and yellow, but not red and green. Their vision is similar to some colour blind humans, who only have two working cone cells due to either an absence or a malfunction of a third type of cone cell. Not all colour blind humans are the same as they can have different combinations of working cone cells (or none at all), and thus are unable to see different colours, resulting in different colour spectrums.
Some animals are tetrachromatic and able to distinguish to four primary wavelengths of light. Birds, for example, are even able to view ultraviolet light, which is beyond the visible light spectrum. (Interestingly, humans with Aphakia can also view ultraviolet as their lens has been surgically removed. For the rest of us, our lens blocks this light.)
Some women are tetrachromatic as they possess four types of cone cells, which allows them to see a hundred million colours. The extra cone cell has its origin in their fathers’ colour blindness, who possess two working cone cells and one mutant one. This mutant one is passed on to the daughter, who then has four cone cells. It is probable that tetrachromats have to train themselves to see such an array of colours, as the natural world will not have such a diversity of colours for the brain to learn to use the fourth cone. As such, it is likely that most will go through life without recognising their potential.
So tetrachromats, both human and non-human, can distinguish many more hues of green than the rest of us, and plantlife may appear very different. For animals like birds this may be very useful for distinguishing between plants to find sources of food or shelter. For the rest of us, our trichromatic vision proves very useful in allowing us to quickly identify between opportunities for profit and sources of danger, such as when fruits are ripe.
Plants need to absorb light in order to carry out photosynthesis to produce glucose, which can be used for metabolism and growth, or stored as starch. Photosynthesis is a chemical reaction that inputs sunlight, water and carbon dioxide and outputs glucose and oxygen. It is a two step process, comprised of light-dependent and light independent reactions. In the former sunlight plays a key role by providing the chlorophyll with energy to kickstart the complicated chemical reaction.
In green plants, there are two types of chlorophyll: chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b that both absorb different spectrums of light. They both complement each other with a absorbing more red light and b absorbing more blue, and this allows the plants to fulfil its energy requirements. As you can see in the graph below, chlorophyll still absorbs green light but not to the same extent as they do red and blue.
However, this is not the full story. The above graph represents the absorption spectra of extracted chlorophyll molecules. As part of a plant, chlorophyll never exist alone but are bound to molecules that influence what it absorbs, and as such plants absorb about 70% of green light.
There are other pigments (accessory pigments) inside green plants that play a role in photosynthesis such as carotenoids. They primarily absorb green and blue, but reflect yellow, orange and red. It is these pigments that give many plants’ leaves their autumnal colours, and signal the presence of ripe fruit, once the amount chlorophyll is reduced. These accessory pigments are useful as they allow the plant to capture more of the sun’s energy by broadening its absorption spectrum.
So, what about plants that aren’t green? While all plants that photosynthesise contain chlorophyll a, they can contain many different types of accessory pigments, giving them different colours. For example, many reddish-purple plants contain the pigment anthocyanin in such abundance that acts to mask the green chlorophyll pigments.
So, why do plants use red and blue light more so than green? And why do they not absorb all visible light (and henceforth appear black)?
It is believed that today’s plants evolved from a common ancestor (green algae) that used chlorophyll to photosynthesise. Why no alternative dominant pigment emerged is an unanswered question, although many hypotheses have been proposed. Evolution is a product of multiple processes such as random mutation, random selection and natural selection, and henceforth plants can’t design or choose the best pigment to use. It is therefore probable that once chlorophyll proved successful no new alternative dominant pigment emerged, thus enabling green plants to dominate the landscape. Although, there is a possibility that (primarily) utilising a narrow band of wavelengths (red and blue) for photosynthesis is mechanically superior, and this allowed early organisms to outcompete other lifeforms.
Why do plants use the visible light spectrum for photosynthesis?
In general, plants only absorb trivial amounts of light outside of the the visible light spectrum. This is because the sun produces the most light in the visible light spectrum, and chlorophyll have evolved to utilise it. (If you look at the graph above, chlorophyll a’s absorption spectrum is almost exclusively confined within the visible light spectrum.) There are other mechanical reasons for this. Visible light is perfect as it provides just enough energy without causing damage to the plants’ cells. By contrast, ultraviolet is damaging and infrared contains insufficient energy. In addition, a lot of ultraviolet light is blocked by the ozone layer.