Summary

Whether plants use leaf colour to deter herbivores remains controversial. The warning signal hypothesis predicts that red pigmentation is adaptive by reducing herbivory; plants with predominantly red foliage should have higher fitness than those with green leaves. Despite many discussions, this prediction has rarely been tested, and alternative, non-exclusive hypotheses cannot be ruled out.

We have exploited leaf colour polymorphism in Pseudowintera colorata to test the warning signal hypothesis and to address possible alternative explanations.

Consistent with warning signals, redder foliage contained higher concentrations of polygodial, a sesquiterpene dialdehyde with strong antifeedant properties, and incurred less herbivory than green leaves. Redder plants hosted 22% fewer lepidopteran leafroller larvae than neighbouring green plants.

However, contrary to the predictions of the hypothesis, there were no differences in fitness parameters between red and green plants. Overall leaf canopy colour was not a significant predictor of the number of seeds per fruit or of mean seed weight. This may be explained by differences in photosynthesis: green P. colorata leaves had 47% higher maximum CO2 assimilation rates than matched red leaves from neighbouring plants.

These results indicate that the benefits of deterring insect herbivores by signalling may be balanced by the higher photosynthetic rate of non-signalling plants. A balance between signalling and photosynthesis is a novel mechanism for the maintenance of leaf colour polymorphisms in nature.

Synthesis. Anthocyanin pigments may simultaneously serve multiple functions within leaves, and individuals of the same plant species may use different strategies to cope with insect herbivores. Therefore, investigations into the role of these pigments in plant–insect interactions need to consider plant physiology and the diversity of plant defence mechanisms.